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Listening to: Manu Katché

A review of Manu Katché’s Neighbourhood (2005) and Playground (2007)

Manu Katché is a French drummer (born 1958), originally famous for being an in-demand session and live drummer on the 80s/90s ‘world fusion’ circuit (Peter Gabriel, Sting, etc.). Now, his proclivities evidently run more in a jazz direction, and he’s released two stunning and eminently listenable albums on ECM (the German “Edition of Contemporary Music” label that some call the 21st century’s Blue Note). Apparently, he’s also the French Simon Cowell: Wikipedia reports that between 2003 and 2007, he was the mean judge on Nouvelle Star, the French equivalent of American Idol (“He was the most feared of [the judges] for his wit and his severe judgement about the groove and the rhythm of the singer-wannabes.”).

While I’m only beginning to listen my way through ECM’s oeuvre of the past 20 years or so, it’s clear that German producer/owner Manfred Eicher‘s vision is distinctive and singular. No matter whether his releases contain jazz, contemporary classical (‘serious’?) music, or various flavours of world fusion, they are infused with a particular aesthetic – spacious, present, clear audio; a minimalist approach to arrangement; often an angular sound that requires listeners to really pay attention; but also a warmth that draws us in and captivates our imaginations – for me, many ECM releases are interesting lab experiments positing, “What would happen if…”. The label’s output is, in many ways, representative of an ‘alternate’ musical reality, a realm of possibilities that ‘mainstream’ record labels never really had, where jazz, classical and world music coexist and fruitfully collaborate without skepticism or genre constraints. ECM is one of the few ‘older’ independent labels that grew, and continues to maintain, its audience organically. (Some interesting points in this interview with Eicher.)

ECM’s typical jazz output is maybe best characterized as the dominant European jazz aesthetic: a postmodern type of jazz, rooted in the traditions of acoustic instrumentation (piano trios, classic quartets, quintets, septets, etc.); not typically groove-driven; deeply cognizant of all harmonic possibilities; interested in space and texture over melody; not ‘free jazz’ exactly but definitely exploratory-minded; and actively affirmative of European players’ (often names North American jazz listeners do not recognize at all) decades of experience that should receive more exposure than they do.

Recording Manu Katché’s solo records in that context creates – either deliberately or by happy coincidence – outstanding music because it juxtaposes ECM’s minimalist approach with his pattern-based grooves. The result is a sort of European ‘soul jazz’: Katché gives these players (and there are some truly formidable ones: Neighbourhood has Jan Garbarek on saxophone, Tomasz Stanko – whose music I have previously reviewed here – on trumpet, Marcin Wasilewski on piano and Slamowir Kurkiewicz on bass) the freedom to explore what it is like to play with firmer, more articulated, steadier rhythms carrying them. The compositions (all courtesy of Katché) make lovely use of the horn front-line (particularly beautiful, interestingly, on Playgroud, where Garbarek and Stanko are replaced by two younger players, Mathias Eick (tp) and Trygve Seim (sax)).

From the point of view of a listener who comes to this music from rock, what’s particularly interesting to me here is that – despite the instrumentation (soprano saxophone?) and provencance (Katché’s world music background) – I don’t perceive this as ‘fusion’ or have any Kenny G. associations (I have felt those before, particular when listening to some of Jan Garbarek’s less experimental solo work). While it’s always melodic, the rhythmically propelled, acoustic nature and non-ingratiating authenticity of these records make them equally ideal to listen to in the car (where other ECM jazz releases, like Thomsz Stanko’s records or the Marcin Wasilewski Trio, really don’t work at all) or pay attention late at night wearing headphones.

I also really enjoy how these CDs bring out a more optimistic, positive side of the “ECM sound”: while I find Stanko, Warcilewski and others endlessly fascinating and engaging in their abstractness and angular, ‘important’ musical explorations, they can also, at times, have a bit of a ponderous and depressing effect on me, all cold Scandinavian textures, hints and silences. When Katché’s groove emerges, as it does beautifully at around 1:45 in “Morning Joy” on Playground, my ears perk up and my toes start tapping. I suppose even a label like ECM, with its programmatic approach to musical exploration, ultimately affirms the power of a pattern-based groove. It is, in the end, what makes most popular music work. (I thought of discussing here whether ECM’s is, indeed, ‘popular’ music but decided against it…)

Other perceptive reviews to read: the BBC about Neighbourhood, All About Jazz about Neighbourhood, The Guardian about Neighbourhood, Budd Kopman on All About Jazz about Playground, John Kelman on All About Jazz about Playground.

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