by Ian Mann
April 27, 2016
Something of a return to form by Manu Katche. His music may be relatively undemanding but it's far from vacuous and there's some excellent writing and playing throughout this album.
(Anteprima Productions – Cat. no. CD18021)
Born in Paris of African roots drummer Manu Katche first came to prominence on Peter Gabriel’s “So” album back in 1986 and on the Amnesty International World Tour with Gabriel, Sting and Tracy Chapman. He has since recorded and/or toured with numerous other rock and pop acts including Joni Mitchell, Robbie Robertson, Jeff Beck, Dire Straits, Simple Minds, Bees Gees, Tears for Fears and Joan Armatrading. Other collaborations have involved Youssou N’Dour and Nigel Kennedy.
On the jazz front Katche is best known for his work with Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek with whom he first played in 1989. Katche has subsequently appeared on several of Garbarek’s albums.
In 2005 Katche released “Neighbourhood”, his first jazz album as a leader, for ECM Records, also the long term home of Jan Garbarek. The record featured an all star international band including Garbarek on saxes alongside the Polish musicians Tomasz Stanko (trumpet), Marcin Wasilewski (piano) and Slawomir Kurkiewicz (bass).
“Neighbourhood” was both critically acclaimed and a commercial success. One of the most accessible and unselfconscious records in the ECM catalogue it deservedly put Katche on the map as a solo artist. Katche’s writing was excellent throughout and demonstrated his way with a tune as well as a groove. This was one of the most overtly melodic releases on ECM since Pat Metheny’s hey day with the label some twenty years before.
Although it was impossible to keep the stellar “Neighbourhood” band together Katche went on to release two further albums for ECM, “Playground” in 2007 and “Third Round” in 2010. Both these featured the same style of melodic jazz that he patented on “Neighbourhood” and both records sold well despite being ultimately less satisfying than the début. The personnel on these two releases included the Norwegian musicians Mathias Eick (trumpet) and first Trygve Seim and then Tore Brunborg on saxophones. Wasilewski and Kurkiewicz both appeared on “Playground” before being replaced by the British pair of Jason Rebello (piano) and Pino Palladino (bass) on “Third Round”.
In 2008 I enjoyed a performance by a quintet of Katche, Eick, Brunborg, Rebello and Jerome Regard (bass) at Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of that year’s London Jazz Festival. That show, a double bill with label mate Iro Haarla’s group is reviewed elsewhere on this site.
Katche’s final album for ECM was the eponymous “Manu Katche” released in 2012 and featuring Brunborg, trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer and the British keyboard player Jim Watson who appeared on both piano and organ. The addition of the Hammond introduced an interesting new aspect to Katche’s sound.
In 2014 Katche moved to the ACT label for whom he released “Live In Concert”, a set featuring his working band of Brunborg, Watson and the Italian trumpeter Luca Aquino. The same quartet appears on this new release, Katche’s first for the French record label and concert agency Anteprima Productions. This time round the band also features the upright bass playing and vocals of the gifted young Norwegian musician Ellen Andrea Wang, best known for fronting the jazz/indie rock crossover outfit Pixel and previously with the more uncompromising punk jazz aggregation Synkoke. Wang is something of a rising star and her involvement with the Katche group will help to bring her talents to the attention of a wider audience.
The material on “Unstatic” is comprised of eleven originals written by the leader, all of them played in what has now become familiar as the ‘Manu Katche style’. Katche’s way with a groove and ear for a good tune remain undimmed and the core group sound is expanded by the presence of guest trombonist Nils Landgren who appears on five tracks.
Landgren features on the opening track, simply titled “Introduccion”, a seductive rhumba that finds Katche working in harness with no fewer than three guest percussionists in the shapes of Abraham Rodriguez Mansfarroll, Joel Hiereezuelo Balart and Esteben Sotolongo Zapata. Landgren makes a significant contribution on trombone alongside Watson on acoustic piano.
Next up is the title track which explodes out of the blocks with its snappy, funky grooves and arresting melodies. Watson opens the solos here on electric piano, deploying that classic Rhodes sound. Wang’s bass also features prominently alongside the breathy whisper of Aquino’s trumpet. Watson then switches to Hammond to accompany Brunborg’s tenor sax solo. This is a piece with an instant visceral appeal but there’s also an impressive degree of sophistication and dynamic contrast about the writing and playing.
“Flame&co” features widescreen grooves courtesy of bass, keyboards and drums and has an urban, cinematic feel. Brunborg solos with a muscular fluency on tenor and Aquino also impresses with his distinctive trumpet playing which bears the influence of both his predecessor Molvaer and, inevitably, Miles Davis. There’s also some excellent interplay between Wang’s bass and Watson’s keyboards and once again Katche’s writing manages to incorporate plenty of variety into a superficially simple framework. From the title I was expecting to hear some kind of flamenco influence, but if there was one it wasn’t immediately apparent to my ears.
Perhaps appropriately “City” maintains the energy levels with its catchy hooks and bustling grooves as Watson again impresses on electric piano and also adds some effective Hammond. The horns largely remain part of the ensemble in a largely energetic arrangement that is almost led by Katche’s drums.
The gospel infused “Blossom” slows things down a little with Brunborg making a rare but effective appearance on alto saxophone, introducing the piece in conjunction with Watson’s acoustic piano. The main theme is typically attractive and melodic and acts the springboard for an extended solo from Brunborg. The later stages of the tune are almost anthemic and feature the wordless vocals of Wang and Katche coalescing to convey a pleasing air of warmth and well being.
Brunborg remains on alto for “Daze Days”, a tune that belies its jokey title. It proves to be a beautifully elegant ballad that again features the ‘whispering’ trumpet technique of Aquino who solos thoughtfully and eloquently as well as combining effectively with the rest of the ensemble. Katche drums with an admirable sensitivity and Watson’s acoustic piano also plays an important part in the arrangement.
“Rolling” proves to be a more literal title with its rolling, gently funky grooves and recurring melodic motifs. Watson deploys a variety of keyboard sounds and the featured soloist is Landgren on subtly manipulated trombone.
“Ride Me Up” continues the funky theme as it emerges from a rhythmic pattern hammered out on a piano with dampened strings. Watson also plays Hammond and Rhodes, soloing on the letter supported by Katche’s crisp backbeat grooves. Brunborg also makes a powerful contribution on saxophone as Watson’s Hammond swirls around him.
“Trickle” represents a pause for breath, its languid theme managing to combine both classical and blues influences. Brunborg appears on keening soprano while Wang on bass and Watson on acoustic piano also make important contributions.
“Out Of Sight” opens with the sound of Wang’s bass which subsequently locks into a solid groove with Katche’s drums, this giving the horns room to both dovetail and solo, with Brunborg again on soprano. Meanwhile Watson’s various keyboards provide further depth, colour and texture.
The closing “Presentation” finds Katche announcing his bandmates (including Landgren) to the listener as if to an audience at a gig. Wang takes the melodic lead in the track’s early stages and Watson’s gently trilling electric piano adds a wilfully cheesy lounge jazz feel to the proceedings. It’s a fun way to end a very good album and its relative brevity ensures that it doesn’t overstay its welcome.
To these ears “Unstatic” represents something of a return to form for Manu Katche. Many of the virtues that made “Neighbourhood” such a success are present again here, good tunes, a well balanced programme and enough colour and variation within the individual tunes to keep things interesting.
Katche’s music can all to easily be bundled into the ‘smooth jazz’ bag but close and repeated listening reveals that it’s not quite as simple as that. While this music may be relatively undemanding it’s far from vacuous and there’s some excellent writing and playing throughout this record.
Wang brings a new dimension to the group and is a very successful addition and it’s good to hear Brunborg in a different, sunnier context to his sometimes austere work with Tord Gustavsen and others on ECM. Katche marshals things superbly from behind the kit but to a British listener it’s the work of the UK’s own Jim Watson that is perhaps the most enjoyable and satisfying aspect of this album. Watson is right at the heart of the group’s music and whichever keyboard he deploys he always seems to find exactly the right sound. Well done, Jim, keep flying the flag for British jazz and keep up the good work.