Manu Katché: Touchstone For Manu (ECM 2419)

Touchstone for Manu

Manu Katché
Touchstone For Manu

Recorded 2004-2012
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: August 7, 2014

Whenever we say artists have “left their mark,” we tend to mean they’ve taken something away from the surface of the context in question and left something of themselves in its place. In the case of drummer Manu Katché, however, it’s as if he has left a shadow behind—a melodic spirit, if you will—through which one might come to appreciate the glow of his music. The fact that ECM already had a fixed set of 40-album “Touchstones” series yet determined that Katché was deserving of his own outlying nod confirms this status: fully a part of the ECM canon yet always catching a thermal to the next horizon.

Touchstone For Manu is not only significant for Katché’s subtle grooves and intimate hooks, but also for attracting an all-star cast of musicians to join him in the journey. Trumpeters as diverse as Mathias Eick, Tomasz Stanko, and Nils Petter Molvær variously grace his jet streams, while saxophonists Jan Garbarek, Trygve Seim, and Tore Brunborg underscore the former’s silver with streaks of gold. Guitarist Jacob Young casts his quiet nets of influence, while pianists Marcin Wasilewski, Jason Rebello, and Jim Watson bring their distinctive touches to bear on the improvisational quotient. Bassists Slawomir Kurkiewicz and Pino Palladino round out the guest list, with Katché as maître d’.

Katché portrait
(Photo credit: Gildas Bouclé)

The starter is “Song For Her,” one of three tracks off his second ECM leader date, 2007’s Playground. For one who’s composing is prone to aerial atmospheres, this is an ideal place to start. Eick’s trumpet is a fine vehicle both here and in “So Groovy,” which in title and realization might as well be Katché’s mission statement. Proof also that, while these may sound to some like nothing more than simple exercises, a closer listen reveals the depth of talent needed to express their simplicity. The tonal purity of the musicians involved is no small feat, and to give this music the attention it deserves requires of the would-be Katché interpreter total commitment to feel and structure. Just listen to the synchronicity of Kurkiewicz and Katché as they navigate the changes, and Wasilewski with them as he dabs his spontaneous commentary during a stretch of downtime. Such decisions require a tactile, careful ear. In “Morning Joy,” too, we feel that artfulness of participation, and find further evidence of Katché’s diversity. He can linger with languor, laugh in slow motion, and soar on wings of memory rather than of matter.

Before the first and second tunes of this playground, however, we zoom out to reveal the 2005 ECM debut, Neighbourhood. As my first encounter with the drummer, it has always been a personal favorite, but regardless of your album affiliations it’s difficult to deny “Number One” as one of his most exquisite tracks on record. For starters, it boasts the finery of a dream band, fronting Stanko and Garbarek over two thirds of the Wasilewski trio and Katché’s metronome. The set-up to its piano-driven groove shows patience, tracing rims and cymbals in preparation for “Take Off And Land.” The pianism is top-flight, as are contributions all around, each playing an equal role in a macramé of forces.

From Katché’s 2010 Third Round we get the uninterrupted triptych of “Keep On Trippin,’” “Senses,” and “Swing Piece.” These represent the more upbeat of Katché’s albums, and one brimming with happiness. Palladino’s electric bass is a welcome color change next to that organic kit, and has a more focused sound in trio with Rebello’s piano. Young’s guitar and Brunborg’s soprano add water and light, respectively, in the first tune, while the second and third, smooth as an ice skater’s blade, take the leader’s egalitarian aesthetic to new depths.

When Katché gave an interview to NPR about his 2012 self-titled album, he discussed, among other things, the importance of tuning his drums throughout the recording process. I’ll never forget reading an online comment by someone who balked at this idea, claiming it as the mark of a “musical imposter.” Trolls will be trolls, but it bears elaboration to say that many drummers across genres, cultures, and time periods have relied on the benefits of tuning to match their instruments with others in an ensemble. Where, for example, would an entire tradition of Indian tabla playing be without it? Or, for that matter, the western classical orchestra, in which the timpani—which Katché studied at the Paris Conservatory—must be precisely tuned to suit the needs of the score. The tuning is obvious from the three selections of that album here. Just listen to the way in which his snare and cymbals seem to sing in “Running After Years,” a track that further shows Katché at the height of his compositional powers, blending all the characteristics of his previous efforts into a fresh and all-inclusive sound. Molvær is an ideal addition to the drummer’s evolving nexus, his resonant horn careening through the clouds with an attunement all his own, as Brunborg’s tenor traces parabolas alongside Molvær’s plane trails and Watson’s pianism reminds us of the earth we’ve left behind.

In “Slowing The Tides,” Molvær employs a technique made famous by Jon Hassell, adding harmonies by singing through his trumpet. Watson’s Hammond organ, here and on the final track, “Bliss,” adds simmering heat. Katché’s robust beat engenders wry twists from Watson, playing us out from a program of shape and shift. So are we reminded that no fireworks are needed to create wonderment in rhythm. Sometimes, a groove just needs room to grow.

Manu Katché: Third Round (ECM 2156)

Third Round

Manu Katché
Third Round

Manu Katché drums
Tore Brunborg saxophones
Jason Rebello piano, Fender Rhodes
Pino Palladino bass
Jacob Young guitar
Kami Lyle trumpet, vocal
Recorded December 2009, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Third Round follows up drummer Manu Katché’s previous ECM albums, Neighbourhood and Playground with his deepest love long yet. Joining him are saxophonist Tore Brunborg, pianist Jason Rebello, bassist Palladino, and guitarist Jacob Young. The latter contributes to three polished tunes: the lovely, piano-driven “Keep On Trippin’,” the gorgeous “Springtime Dancing,” and the sunlit “Flower Skin,” in which his acoustic shines brightest. Also guesting is Kami Lyle, who sings her own lyrics and plays trumpet in the tender “Stay With You.” It’s something of a surprise in a soundscape dominated by grooves and paved improvisational avenues.

In spite of the equal contributions from each musician throughout and Katché’s own understated role as leader, the drummer’s cymbals are truly the key to unlocking this album’s secrets. The opening “Swing Piece” is emblematic in this regard. It takes its first stretches of awakening on a soft layer of piano, over which Brunborg and Palladino sprinkle their dust, setting up a pulse that moves us to the end. But it’s Katché’s sparkle that really sets this vessel along the set list’s meticulous progression from horizon to horizon. To be sure, his bandmates interlock expertly in “Being Ben” and “Shine And Blue,” but the cymbals break surface at every turn with almost neon brilliance.

Katché has always been a melodic player, but on Third Round he turns up the dial on atmosphere, brushing around the beat a little in “Senses” and lending fragrance to the blossoming “Out Take Number 9,” a nominally expendable studio blip that turns out to be a real highlight. In the smokily final “Urban Shadow,” he paints two eyes closing in anticipation of a dance that never quite comes. Then again, that’s the beauty of Katché’s music: delicate yet always engaging, it holds you just enough to let you know it’s there if you need its comfort.

(To hear samples of Third Round, click here.)

Manu Katché: Playground (ECM 2016)


Manu Katché

Mathias Eick trumpet
Trygve Seim tenor and soprano saxophones
Marcin Wasilewski piano
Slawomir Kurkiewicz double-bass
Manu Katché drums
David Torn guitar on “Lo” and “Song For Her (var.)”
Recorded January 2007 at Avatar Studios, New York
Engineer: James A. Farber
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Playground is the spiritual successor to drummer Manu Katché’s auspicious ECM leader debut: Neighbourhood. Auspicious, because said debut practiced just the communal sort of sharing it preached. The lineup here replaces saxophonist Jan Garbarek with the multi-talented Trygve Seim and adds to its ranks trumpeter Mathias Eick—neither strangers to one another since their appearance on Iro Haarla’s Northbound. Rounding out the cast are two thirds of the Marcin Wasilewski Trio (bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz and Wasilewski himself at the keys), as well as guitarist David Torn. Aside from the latter’s ambient contributions to its bookends, the album luxuriates in the all-acoustic interplay of Katché’s simple yet potent tunes.

Of those tunes, we get 11 artfully crafted gems, gradated from sunrise to sunset. From the first, there is a sort of lush Americana that pervades each smooth turn of phrase, swaying like poplars in anonymous urban landscapes—a result, perhaps, of these European jazzmen soaking in the spell of New York City, where Playground was recorded. Either way, one can hear the pulse of the city’s history in the underlying beat textures. In this regard, Wasilewski’s pianism is striking for both its sink and swim. In the album’s opener it acts as an intermediate force between Katché’s supporting brushes and Eick’s leading stare, while in “Song For Her” (and its variation, which ends the set) it enables reflective bassing, pinging like pachinko balls in slow motion. Here, as elsewhere, the horns build to the non-invasive sort of head at which Katché’s writing excels.

Tracks are designated by names that are as descriptive as they are simple. Most are relatively obvious. “Motion,” for example, moves flexibly. Noteworthy is Wasilewski, given free reign in one of the session’s strongest improvisational showings, of which there are a strategic few (others being Seim’s chromatic solo in “Inside Game” and Eick’s skyward lob in “Project 58”). Despite the groundedness of Katche’s drumming, there is always something airborne about the melodic front line, so that tracks like “So Groovy” showcase Katché’s multidirectional awareness. What distinguishes his grooves, then, is less their sense of push than of pull. Here, as in “Snapshot,” the music draws ocean waters like the moon. Whether piecing together the cymbal-happy backbone of “Clubbing” or paving the smooth runway of “Morning Joy,” Katché finds strength in his attractions to kindred spirits. They clearly take inspiration from him in kind, for by the end one feels the cycle ready to repeat for a third round.

The title of the second track, “Pieces Of Emotion,” describes it best: each fragment builds a larger mental whole, a place built on togetherness, listening, and, above all, synchronicity.

Manu Katché: s/t (ECM 2284)


Manu Katché

Jim Watson piano, Hammond B3 organ
Nils Petter Molvær trumpet, loops
Tore Brunborg tenor and soprano saxophones
Manu Katché drums, piano solo on Dusk On Carnon
Recorded March 2012, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de haro and Romain Castera
Produced by Manfred Eicher

French-Ivorian drummer Manu Katché first caught my ear on Jan Garbarek’s Visible World, for which he provided a comforting balance of the smooth and the jagged. Since then, I’d heard him lurking in many of the saxophonist’s records, including Ragas and Sagas, I Took Up The Runes, and Twelve Moons. Yet it wasn’t until 2005’s Neighbourhood that he blossomed before my ears as a composer of economy, straightforwardness, and panache. Thus began the Manu Katché “band,” the makeup of which has changed with every album since. Horns remain a constant, and this latest effort puts him in studio contact with Nils Petter Molvær on trumpet and Tore Brunborg on reeds, along with Jim Watson on piano and Hammond B3. Molvær is a particularly welcome addition to the roster. Like Katché, he’d been a sideman for his fair share of memorable ECM sessions, including projects with singer Sidsel Endresen and Arild Andersen’s Masqualero, but his breakout moments came as a leader on 1997’s Khmer. As for Watson, he and Katché share a double life in the world of popular music—the former with Meshell Ndegeocello, the latter with Peter Gabriel—and for this outing the keyboardist takes the place of bass and completes an unbeatable (no oxymoron intended) rhythm section. This constant change in lineup speaks to the maturation of an artist whose instrument is so often forgotten in the grander mix, for even among these fiery talents his voice rings with a binding energy all its own.

(Session photo by Monika Rokicka)

It’s no coincidence, then, that those drums should lead us into the smoothness of “Running After Years,” the first of ten new originals. From its monochromatic groove and descending horn lines, we get a prime taste of Katché’s melodic sensibilities and of his band’s invaluable contributions toward realizing them. Molvær takes the first solo, walking avenues on winged heels. “Bliss” turns the lights down even lower on this city of love, giving Watson a chance to go a-Hammonding on fresh snowfall. “Loving You” funnels moonlight into the quietest corners of the heart, and with the last shows that keyboard and drums could take this album and run at any time if they wanted to. Molvær’s Jon Hassell-like touches in “Walking By Your Side” paint over an already smoky sky with charcoal before Brunborg’s tenor rides a wave of organ to distant shores. “Imprint” is a song without words, a quiet anthem for the departed that bleeds good memory. Its contrast to the surrounding tracks is starkly beautiful, and leaves us cored for the fluid energy Brunborg brings to “Short Ride.” As extroverted as its predecessor is veiled, it shows Katché’s kit skills at their bubbliest. “Beats & Bounce” is an easy favorite. Swinging from a piano hook that stays with you, this emblematic tune finds itself from the get-go and doesn’t let go. At moments you’d swear there was a bass there in the mix, but it’s Watson all the way. “Slowing The Tides” pushes us deeper into the album’s nocturnal engineering, through which organ wavers like dragon’s breath. The band ends its tenure on “Loose.” This simple chapter turns our protagonists inward, leaving only Katché alone at the piano for “Dusk On Carnon.” Originally trained on the instrument, he shucks the music from its husk, offering an ear to those who will partake.

With a feel for the evocative that is his trademark, Katché’s self-titled latest brings freshness wherever it goes. One listen is all it takes to convince us of its sheer enjoyment.

To hear samples of Manu Katché, click here. And for some footage in the studio, look no further:

Manu Katché: Neighbourhood (ECM 1896)

Manu Katché

Jan Garbarek saxophones
Tomasz Stanko trumpet
Marcin Wasilewski piano
Slawomir Kurkiewicz double-bass
Manu Katché drums, percussion
Recorded March and November 2004, Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Neighbourhood is an astounding, if subdued, meeting of minds. Like other ECM projects of its ilk, this congregation feels as if it arose out of a fundamental and inescapable desire to create music for the sheer enjoyment of it. There is no showing off here. This is laid back, burnished, melt-in-your-mouth jazz perfect for a quiet evening or a rainy afternoon. That being said, this is a far cry from what might elsewhere derogatorily pass for “smooth.” In spite of its overall delicacy the album is not without solid grooves (how can we not bob our heads to the piano-driven ride that is “Number One” or to the swinging horns of “Take Off And Land”?), effectively concise solos (cf. Garbarek’s gorgeous outburst in “Good Influence” and titillating turns from Wasilewski and Stanko in “Lovely Walk”), and enough stellar moments overall to turn any depressing day into a blissful mental excursion. The ensemble plays us out beautifully with “Rose.”

As the brainchild of Manu Katché and producer Manfred Eicher, Neighbourhood is essentially a rhythmic enterprise. Katché’s percussion work provides the crowning motifs to which his compatriots are each a shining jewel. Multiple listenings reveal new nuances of texture and interaction every time. A very fine but impermeable thread connects these musicians and Katché never dominates, waiting in the wings as his motifs take shape of their own volition. The title of the sixth cut says it all: “No Rush.” Take your time with this one and it will reward you greatly. Just press PLAY and you’re there.