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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.]

New Listen: Scent of Soil’s ‘Scent of Soil’


Artist: Scent of Soil
Album: Scent of Soil (2011, HUBRO Music)

I’ve had Scent of Soil‘s self-titled album on repeat for the last week, and I don’t foresee that ending anytime soon. As is the case with most “New Listen” entries, this album is new for me but itself a couple years old. Shame on me for not finding it sooner. One of my initial thoughts during my maiden listen was: Where has this album been all my life?

Hyperbolic? Not by much. The band’s self-titled debut scratches me right where I itch. As mentioned in my last post, I was fortunate enough to meet and talk with Tore Brunborg after the recent Tord Gustavsen Quartet performance in Chicago. I’ve been quite a fan of Brunborg in particular for a few years now, following his work with various ECM artists as well as his work as a leader. Unfortunately, at the time of our meeting I hadn’t yet dug into Scent of Soil, his rock-meets-jazz hybrid project with vocalist Kirsti Huke. I corrected that a couple days later and remain under the album’s spell.

Scent of Soil is fusion in the truest sense of the word. This isn’t simply a rock album with sax and keys, or a jazz band playing straight eighths, but instead a quintet of top-shelf musicians synthesizing their various backgrounds and strengths to serve the music. It’s rare to hear such a balance between the rock and jazz (and more) aesthetics, especially when dealing with songs. In that regard, the band reminds me of the one and only Joni Mitchell. It’s not that they sound like Joni, but rather the spirit of what they’re doing is reminiscent of her. (Though songs such as “Trøndervise” have airs of The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.) Given all that and my own dual-comfort in rock and jazz worlds, this album seems tailor-made for me. Granted I started out with an initial bias because of my fondness for Tore’s playing, but I love this album for reasons far nobler than any fanboy notions.

Scent of Soil are fronted by Brunborg and Huke, who both wrote the music and lyrics and also play keys on top of their primary instruments of saxophone and voice, respectively. Filling out the lineup are guitarist Petter Vågan, bassist Rune Nergaard, and drummer/percussionist Gard Nilssen. Though that may seem like a “Brunborg/Huke + band” arrangement, this is indeed a group effort, with the rhythm section creating not only a solid foundation but also a variety of textures and soundworlds in which the songs come alive. Petter Vågan’s electric, acoustic, and steel guitars provide much more than harmony and melody, but also walls of sound ranging from ambient to arena- and noise-rock. Nergaard and Nilssen are a strong yet tasteful rhythm section. Looking at the resumes of each of the musicians, one may expect the bass and drums to wander and showboat, but they both stick together and lay it down the grooves right where they belong: in the pocket. The music and lyrics for these nine selections are original, save for some adapted text for “Breeze” and “Necklaces” by Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson, respectively.

Musically, the album appears to be divided into three parts, each with three songs. “Breeze” begins the album beautifully. Flowing acoustic guitar arpeggios and vocals are supported by an ambient layer of bass and electric guitar. Eventually the full band kicks in to a dreamy half-time groove, continuing the ambience throughout, the layer of which is all that’s left standing once the drums, voice, and horn fade die away. This opening song is a warm bath drawing the listener in for a wondrous journey. Once lulled, a toe-tapping-but-calm groove from the drums and bass kick-start “Ocean,” with the electric guitar now providing a shimmering ambient layer for the rest of the rhythm section. With the hazy vocals and treated horns, It’s a groove finding its way through a fog, finding the clear halfway through. with Tore’s (and the album’s) first real solo, leading to danceable pop rock. Thought it builds some, the band saves their energy for, oddly enough, “Ease.” A ballad-esque 6/8 from the bass and drums is accompanied by muted, whale-like guitar bellows. During the second verse, this song builds as Tore begins to soar, giving way to a four-on-the-floor groove that really unleashes the band for the first time, including fast sax runs, high and fast guitar, and additional layers of keys and guitars. Coming full circle, the 6/8 returns at the climax, allowing the tension to gradually deflate.

“Necklaces” is an unexpected palette cleanser after the rock trajectory of the previous songs, beginning the more meditative second act. It features some lovely percussion work by Nilsson, including brushes and bowed cymbals. That, coupled with the mildly dissonant harmonic backdrop of bass, guitar, and keys, offer a haunting setting for Huke’s adaptation of Dickinson’s Summer Shower. “Trøndervise” is a wordless number in which Brunborg’s compositional and melodic skills shine through. His horn and Huke’s vocables float above the rhythm section’s staccato, almost tribal groove and Vågan’s acoustic work. “Floating” is another slow 6/8 number, though much more intense than “Ease” (and without the meter change). To use a recent reference from a few entries back, the slow intensity reminds me of the intro to Zwan’s “Mary Star of the Sea” – not a “rocking” tempo, but definitely a rocking intensity. (Gilsson’s not as manic as Chamberlin on the drums, but the overall vibe is there.)

“Bin” offers another reset of sorts, with light percussion and guitar harmonies and vocals (and eventually the full band) slowly building to a gently joyous ending. Just like Sisyphus, however, the crescendo gives way to the rhythmic but quiet guitar/sax ostinato that begins “Go Charm!” After about 90 seconds of light groove, the drums, guitar, and then bass introduce cacophony out of time, finally finding a pocket over which to let the band unleash their inner arena-rock stars circa 1995. Brunborg and Vågan battle it out before Huke returns to close the song. I want to don a pair of old Dr. Marten’s at the end of this number, and that’s a complement. The album then ends with the title track (which is also the name of the band, putting them in elite company alongside Black Sabbath). “Scent of Soil” is another slow burn that gradually builds upon itself, this time over an organic 7/4. Tore unleashes one final, full-throated solo before the final verse and the slowly-decompressing outro which fades into silence, gently bringing the whole work full circle.

Unintentionally, this turned out to be a much longer “New Listen” than the others, but this album is definitely worthy. A big reason for that is simply my enthusiasm for this great release. I also want to get this album in front of some more eyes and ears, as its little-known, at least here in the US. The band calls this “boundary-defying music,” and it’s most certainly that. Elements of rock (pop, indie, and otherwise), jazz, and more experimental elements combine to yield a compelling but accessible collection of original songs. Despite the partial jazz billing, the solos are limited defined, with the overall focus being the songs themselves. And the songs are great – catchy, musically interesting, and aging well through repeated listens. The whole is much greater than the sum of the parts here, and each of those parts offered a high bar to start with. Scent of Soil is a solid debut from a group I want to hear more of.

Album Links:
HUBRO (record label)

Tord Gustavsen Quartet at Chicago’s Constellation

“Meditative” and “liturgical.” Those were pianist Tord Gustavsen‘s whispered descriptions of his impending set at Constellation on Saturday night. He and his quartet – Gustavsen, saxophonist Tore Brunborg, bassist Mats Eilertsen, drummer Jarle Vespestad – brought their intimate Nordic jazz to the small but attentive capacity crowd. The performance was part of a five city promotional tour of the US in support of the recently released Extended Circle, an album I highly recommend.

The band’s ~75-minute set featured material from the quartet’s two albums Extended Circle and The Well along with earlier Gustavsen selections from Restored, Returned and Being There. Gustavsen and his band have a very stark approach on record, and I was curious how that would translate to a live setting. I’m pleased to report that it did so perfectly. The small venue and low lighting complemented the band’s restraint. It took until the set’s final number (before the encore), “Eg Veit I Himmerik Ei Borg,” for them to reach a semblance of forte, and in doing so provided a welcome release – and relief! – after the long, simmering slow burn. The set was a series of peaks and valleys, with each peak slightly higher than the last until the zenith during “Eg Veit…” I very much appreciated the group’s restraint – not once did it feel forced. Subtle intensity, Gustavsen’s specialty, is often more difficult to achieve than via the usual “high-fast-loud” means, and the band successfully executed it.

Such subtlety was achieved not through dynamics and dissonance alone but also via texture. Brunborg began and ended the evening on soprano (“The Child Within” and “Vicar Street,” respectively), but otherwise played tenor saxophone throughout. However, the tenor/piano/bass/drums instrumentation was exploited to its full potential. Gustavsen tastefully played outside and inside of the piano with great ease, completely avoiding any sense of gimmickry. Eilertsen beautifully played pizzicato and arco, and seeing a jazz bassist use a bow well was a breath of fresh air. Perhaps the MVP in this arena was drummer Jarle Vespestad. His control of his instrument, be it with drumsticks, mallets, brushes, or his hands, was second to none, particularly his cymbal work. I saw it as him approaching his drumset from a percussionist’s perspective instead of a drummer’s. And floating above it all was Tore Brunborg’s golden tone. Wow – I’ve listened to him on a lot of different recordings and none of them prepared me for just how deeply resonant his tenor sound would be in person. The icing on this sonic cake was their touring sound engineer. The amplification was used not to necessarily increased the volume but rather to enhance the live mix and balance, and every sound was crisp and clear.

Each musician basked in the spotlight some throughout the evening, including a couple of unaccompanied piano solos and a bass cadenza. Overall, however, Gustavsen’s music is more conducive to featuring the ensemble as a whole rather than an individual member, as improvised and composed passages seamlessly blend together. The set featured a nice mix of tunes, including “The Child Within,” “Suite,” “The Embrace,” “Glow,” “Eg Veit…,” “Vicar Street,” and others. Similar to the emphasizing of the ensemble as a whole, the individual tunes were less important than the flow of the overall set, which culminated in “Eg Veit…” and then unwound with the encore “Vicar Street.”

I attended this performance with my partner in crime Matt Borghi. Our shared love of ECM aside, this concert was rather special for me personally, as I never thought I’d see Tore Brunborg perform in the US. (And it’s not yet worked out for me to him in Europe.) He’s received some attention on this blog, notably for his work with Manu Katché (in whose band I first heard him), but also a quick reference regarding saxophonists who’ve influenced me. He should get his own full post at some point, as I enjoy his work – both as leader and sideman – but suffice it to say that I’m quite a fan. Furthermore, visiting with the band after the show was a real treat, and it was great to learn that they’re wonderful people as well as top-flight musicians.

If you have the opportunity to see this group, you must certainly take it. 2014 tour details here.

For a taste, here’s the quartet performing “Vicar Street” in 2009:

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.