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New Listen: Manu Katché’s ‘Touchstone for Manu’

[NOTE: I also talk a bit about this album and review on today’s episode of Matt Borghi’s The Sound Traveler Podcast, which you can find here. Also, as expected, I gush over Tore Brunborg‘s playing.]


Artist: Manu Katché
Album: Touchstone for Manu (2015, US; 2014, EU)

This is a bit of a different review, as it’s technically not a new listen for me, though it is a new release. Touchstone for Manu is part of ECM’s retrospective series the label has initiated for its more notable, frequent, and/or core artists. The retrospectives have included various forms: the :rarum series (Keith Jarrett, Jan Garbarek), box sets (e.g., Jack DeJohnette, Eberhard Weber), or non-:rarum compilations (e.g., Manu Katché, Anouar Brahem). Katché’s addition — along with Brahem’s — to that lineup helps to usher in a younger generation.

It shouldn’t surprise longtime readers of this blog that I’m a fan of Manu Katché. 2010’s Third Round not only led to my writing this site’s first album review, but it also quickly led me into the Katché catalogue. It was also through Third Round that I came to know the playing and library of Tore Brunborg, who I now consider one of my favorite living saxophonists.

Touchstone for Manu draws pretty equally from Katché’s four albums as a leader on ECM: 2005’s Neighbourhood, 2007’s Playground, 2010’s Third Round, and 2012’s Manu Katché. (1992’s It’s About Time [on BMG] and 2014’s Live in Concert [on ACT] aren’t included.) Chronologically, these albums go from an acoustic aesthetic rooted in more straight-ahead jazz to involving some electric and electronic elements as well as more pop grooves and/or devices. You can certainly hear this in the compilation’s selections. And this should be no surprise, as Katché has one foot each firmly planted in jazz and pop. Aside from the aforementioned Jan Garbarek, he’s also extensively played behind the likes of Peter Gabriel, Sting, and Joni Mitchell. His upcoming studio debut on ACT looks to get funky with a full horn section, which I can’t wait to hear.

As a composer, one thing I appreciate most about Katché work is the way he structures a piece. It’s a constant throughout his oeuvre. Instead of heavily relying on the typical head-solo-head[-outro] format that permeates so many jazz albums, Katché often includes segues, countermelodies, and other devices to maintain interest. (Of course, he’ll sometimes use the head-solo-head format as well, but it’s great that it’s not a crutch for him.) Sometimes it’s not clear if the lead line is improvising or playing a defined part — if it’s the melody or a solo.

Briefly, the lineup for each album (as represented on Touchstone, as some personnel don’t make it) is:
Neighbourhood includes the rhythm section of Katché (drums, percussion), Marcin Wasilewski (piano), and Sławomir Kurkiewicz (double bass) with the frontline of elder heavies Jan Garbarek (sax) and Tomasz Stańko (trumpet).
Playground keeps the same rhythm section but features a younger frontline of Mathias Eick (trumpet) and Trygve Seim (sax). Another acoustic quintet.
Third Round has the rhythm section of Katché, Pino Palladino (electric bass), Jason Rebello (piano), and Jacob Young (guitar), with Tore Brunborg (sax) as the solo horn.
Manu Katché is a pared-down quartet of Katché, Jim Watson (piano, Hammond B-3), Brunborg (sax), and Nils Petter Molvær (trumpet & effects).

Touchstone includes some nice variety. The first half features the acoustic bands with the electric ones in the latter half, allowing the listener to hear the stylistic evolution over his first decade as a leader on ECM. Another thing worth noting is that, for a drummer to be leading an instrumental band, it’s remarkable how restrained Katché’s playing is in the studio. While there are some active and/or funky tunes (e.g., “So Groovy,” “Keep on Tripping,” “Running After Years”), the drums never really let loose. Katché’s happy to lay down a groove and to let the band play with and off each other as opposed to bathe in the spotlight. Over the course of the album’s eleven tracks, you hear Katché’s sound (through his band and compositions) really come into its own. From the straight-ahead numbers (“Take Offs and Land,” “Song For Her”) to the more pop-oriented (“Swing Piece”) and a synthesis of both (“Running After Years,” “Slowing the Tides”).

Touchstone for Manu is a great place to start for the uninitiated. With an even mix of albums and styles, it’s a nice primer and reference point for his output as a leader on ECM. Highly recommended.

ECM link here
Amazon link here
iTunes link here

[If you’d like to see a more fiery performance, I can’t recommend this video enough. The lineup is largely a transition band between Playground and Third Round, featuring some personnel from both albums. Similar gusto is also present on Live in Concert.]

MTH-V: Manu Katché Sneak Peek

Okay, so it’s been almost one year exactly since the maiden “MTH-V” voyage, debuting with this entry about the ever-infectious Manu Katché. (Unfortunately that video has since been removed…would love to find it again.) Furthermore, Katché’s Third Round was the first focus of the “New Listen” series. (It was my instant love of that album – of course an ECM release – that inspired me to attempt a sort of review.) Needless to say, I’m a fan.

This series has mostly centered around live performance. This week, however, I’d like to feature the preview for Katché’s upcoming fourth album Manu Katché, to be released October 30th in the US. Once again, he’s teaming up with the master: Manfred Eicher. It appears that this album picks up where 2010’s Third Round – my favorite of his albums – left off. Assuming “Slowing The Tides” is an indication of what the rest of the album may be like, I think it’s time to place my pre-order…

Katché is once again joined by saxophonist Tore Brunborg (THANK YOU!), and rounding out the band are trumpeter Nils Petter Molvær and keyboardist Jim Watson.



MTH-V: Manu Katché live

I’ve been wanting to start occasionally posting videos for a couple months but have held off. I wanted there to be some consistency – perhaps making them a semi-regular aspect of this blog – and also for the posts to be relatively informative. I didn’t want to simply post a YouTube link with some exclamation points, but rather offer some brief context and/or history as to why I selected it/them. (Somewhat akin to the “New Listen” series.) Nothing lengthy, but more than just a link.

Attempting consistency, I’ve chosen a video by Manu Katché Group as the debut post. (Regularly readers may know that Manu Katché’s Third Round was the debut “New Listen” post a little over a year ago.)

Manu Katché – drums
Tore Brunborg – saxophones
Mathias Eick – trumpet
Jason Rebello – piano
Jerome Regard – bass

“Miles Away”

I really wish I could’ve been fortunate enough to have seen this particular lineup on this (European) tour! A number of ECM staples, especially Katché and Eick, and a saxophonist I’ve become quite taken with over the last 13 months, Tore Brunborg. (He’s featured on Third Round, and is also on Eick’s latest album.) The whole concert largely features material from Neighbourhood and Playground, and this particular clip includes one tune from each album. (The whole concert, divided into 6 clips, is available for viewing, but this particular clip is by far my favorite. I’ve seen/listened to it probably over 150 times over the last few months…)

[UPDATE: Much of this concert has been periodically removed from YouTube over the years, but “Clubbing” remains.]

This group plays together very well. Brunborg and Eick take different approaches on both tunes (especially “Clubbing,” the latter), and the rhythm section fluidly follows suit each time, giving and taking with ease. Also, a real treat of this performance is to hear these musicians in an intense, often barn-burning, “straight-ahead” setting, something Katché practically avoids on his studio albums.

If you like this one, definitely take the time to watch the entire concert (~1 hour) if you can.


New Listen: Jan Garbarek’s ‘Dresden’

Artist: Jan Garbarek
Album: Dresden (2009)

This week I’m actually discussing a new listen.  I didn’t intend for my first two “new music” entries to be about albums from the same label, but that’s how it goes sometimes.  The last few months I’ve been on a mission to add new names/groups to my collection.  I tend to go “deep” when I really like a person/group, and attempt to be somewhat of a completist with their output.  However, every now and then I’ll realize that I need to add different artists and/or styles.  This was the case with Jan Garbarek.

Being an ECM fan, I was surprised to realize a few weeks ago that I’ve never really listened to Garbarek.  He, along with Keith Jarrett, is the label’s big draw.  I have quite a bit by his associates (Jarrett, Katché, etc.), but nowhere is his horn to be found.  So, upon finding his recent live double-disc release, Dresden (2009), at the store, I decided to give it a try.  The personnel is as follows:
Jan Garbarek – soprano and tenor saxophones, selje flute
Rainer Brüninghaus – piano, keyboards
Yuri Daniel – bass
Manu Katché – drums

I will say that, on the surface, I have a few gripes with this record.
1. First, Garbarek’s soprano tone is largely shrill/nasally – sort of a Michael Brecker-Lenny Pickett-Renaissance shawm hybrid.  Not always, but much of the time.  One factor is his preference for the small curved soprano, something I’ve never warmed to.  Overall his tenor tone is very nice (for me – some may consider it too “harsh” or “pop”), but sometimes the upper register gets some of those soprano-esque qualities.
2. The mix. ECM records usually have a dynamite mix, and there’s almost always a definite “ensemble sound.”  For this record, however, Garbarek often shouts above the rest of the group.  Very top-heavy.
3. Fretless bass – Daniel plays this throughout.  The fretless definitely has its place, but I think this contributes some to the record’s mix issues.  There’s just a lack of a good sonic foundation for a good portion of it. Nowhere near enough low end for my taste.

The above comments, however, aren’t necessarily musical.  They’re definitely musical factors, but they’re more technical than anything.  Sure, they affected my inaugural listen, but once I got past them and listened to the music, I found the album quite enjoyable.  The first disc is much more “world music”-heavy.  (I hate using that term, but there are a lot of vamps and folk melodies/rhythms featured; more so than the second disc.)  Even with some of the tunes having quicker tempos, the overall feel of the first disc is pretty moderate, at times slow.  However, after the first cadenza – each of the sidemen get a few minutes to shine as a soloist – by bassist Yuri Daniel (which is very good – sort of Wooten-esque but without the fireworks), the disc finally kicks into high gear with the Metheny-esque final track, “Milagre Dos Peixes.”

The second disc is more “straight ahead” than the first.  (“Straight ahead” is definitely not the correct term, but there’s more consistent rhythmic interest throughout – definitely no rhythm changes on either of these discs.)  It also features piano and drum cadenzas. (Brüninghaus nearly steals the show on “Transformations,” and Katché offers an energetic transition between the band’s final two pieces of the set before the encore.)  The first 1.7 discs of build to the set’s barn-burner finalé, “Nu Bein’.”  Garbarek opens with a virtuosic selje flute solo before switching back to saxophone for the melody, and each member gets at least a few seconds to shine here. The second disc ends with the show’s encore, “Voy Cantando.”  It’s a piece more akin to the first disc (moderately paced, free-flowing), but with the energy of the second.

(As a side note, Katché’s playing on this album is a stark contrast with that of Third Round. He’s quite intense and aggressive here, and it’s great to hear him excel at both styles.)

After giving this album a few solid listens, I can safely say I’m glad I made the purchase.  However I’ll likely be giving the second disc a bit more attention in the long run. Having not previously experienced Garbarek, I feel like there’s a nice bit of variety in this release, covering the gamut of his output.

Album link:

New Listen: Manu Katché’s ‘Third Round’

MK 'Third Round'

Artist: Manu Katché
Album: Third Round (2010)

This disc, for me, is relatively new – about a month old.  However with this being the first post, I figure I’m allowed to fudge it a bit, especially considering how I haven’t been able to put this album down (even through more recent purchases/listens).  I blindly purchased this album on a whim, having never heard of Manu Katché.  What did catch my eye was the record label, ECM. ECM is arguably my favorite record label. Though it features a variety of artists from a wide array of both classical and jazz genres, there’s a consistency in attitude and ambience that has yet to let me down.  I’m sure I’ll discuss this company more in the future.  For now, Katché…

In brief, Katché has one foot planted firmly in jazz and another in pop, something I definitely relate to.  While I didn’t know that going in, I did notice on the CD’s  sleeve (ECM often features the cardboard sleeve) that the personnel include electric bassist Pino Palladino.  The usage of a regular rock/pop figure was intriguing for me. The full personnel lineup is as follows:
Tore Brunborg: saxophones
Manu Katché: drums
Kami Lyle: vocal (1 track), trumpet (2 tracks)
Pino Palladino: bass
Jason Rebello: piano
Jacob Young: guitars (3 tracks)

Following suit, this album walks a fine line between jazz and “pop” (in the broad definition of the term).  Most tunes are under five minutes and feature a great mix of catchy melodies, organically-abbreviated solos, and solid grooves.  As with most ECM releases, the mood is overall subdued, introspective, and relaxing.  However, a number of very infectious grooves also inspire dancing. 🙂  There’s no ego to be found on this record.  What you hear is the ensemble, with no one stepping on another’s toes.  In fact, you’d never know it was led by the drummer just from listening – not one drum solo is present.  Furthermore, a couple tracks feature no solos (or, rather, no full solos) – they serve more as transition pieces.  There’s a lot of nice work between Brunborg and Rebello, as a number of the melodies feature unison lines between sax and keys.  And Brunborg seamlessly transitions between tenor, alto, and soprano, offering nice changes in color throughout.  As indicated above, there are vocals on one piece, a song written by Katché and Lyle.  It’s a precious little pop ballad, and Lyle’s high, playful voice fits in just nicely.  Perhaps my favorite aspect of this album is the continuity.  While I do like each piece individually, the album as a whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts.  I largely only listen to this album in its entirety, at times consecutively.  It is seamless.

I’ve often considered this album a hybrid of the aesthetics of ECM and Marcus Miller.  While this album is nowhere near as in-your-face or “smooth” as Miller’s work, it does offer a rather “pop” take on the ECM vibe.  In doing so, this album could also serve as a great introduction to jazz – or simply instrumental – music for those who don’t know where to start.  (As for the latter, there is one tune with words to help cleanse the palette!)  For jazz fans, this offers something “pop-ish” without the brashness or cheese.  For fans of music in general, this is a great find, and I look forward to digging deeper into Manu Katché’s catalogue.

Album links:
All About Jazz