Tag Archives: new listen

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: Elton John’s ‘The Diving Board’


Artist: Elton John
Album: The Diving Board (2013)

The Tin Pan Alley Twins strike again, and strongly so. Elton’s recently released The Diving Board is a strong addition to a large, eclectic catalogue that spans five decades. Like many of his musical peers (of which there are few), he’s often saddled with the stereotype of being a legacy act – a touring, nostalgic jukebox of greatest hits. He may continue to sing “Your Song” at just about every performance, but he and lyricist Bernie Taupin are writing some of their strongest material almost fifty years after meeting. I’ve had The Diving Board since its 09.24 US release and can’t get enough.

[I wrote about his previous album The Union, a collaboration with Leon Russell, soon after its release here.]

The Diving Board features John continuing his relationship with producer T. Bone Burnett, which began with The Union. Also, like The UnionThe Diving Board features quasi-Americana and gospel-tinged themes reminiscent of much of Elton’s early material. (If you’re not too familiar with his deep cuts, his second through fifth albums – Elton John, Tumbleweed Connection, Madman Across the WaterHonky Chateau – are rife with great piano-driven country rock songs.) Furthermore, The Diving Board is heavily piano-centric. While that may at first seem obvious, many of Elton’s albums feature such large bands and/or heavy production that his instrument is often obscured. Many of his early performances, including his US debut at The Troubadour in 1970 (also attended by T. Bone Burnett), featured a piano trio. In instrumentation and style, Elton is returning to his roots, even more so than with The Union.

The Union casts a small shadow here, mainly in tone. Though I’m sure that’s Burnett’s touch. Stylistically the album is a mix of The Union, Madman Across the WaterTumbleweed Connection, and The Captain & The Kid. The album’s consistent core is the piano trio of Elton, bassist Raphael Saadiq, and drummer Jay Bellerose. (Bellerose also performed on The Union.) It’s a noticeable departure from Elton’s touring band, which features decades-long collaborators Davey Johnstone (guitar) and Nigel Olsson (drums, who has played with Elton since 1969’s Empty Sky). Other instruments – strings, brass, background vocals, occasional guitar – are used throughout the album, but sparingly so and without obscuring the core trio. When used, the guitar is still playing second to the piano, and the orchestral instruments are there primarily for texture. This relatively stripped down sound is more akin to a club than an arena or stadium. Make no mistake, however, because many of the songs groove hard.

Band aside, Elton himself sounds real nice. He long ago had to trade in his soaring tenor range for a silky baritone, and it’s on wonderful display here. This is evident right from the beginning with the gentle and nostalgic “Ocean’s Away,” the album’s overture featuring only Elton on voice and piano. Then, bit by bit, the rest of the the band joins in on the haunting but hard-driving “Oscar Wilde Gets Out.” This ode to the Irish writer is the sort of brooding saloon romp that conjures the best of The Union and Tumbleweed Connection. This is followed by the gospel-tinged “A Town Called Jubilee,” the first joyous number, with Taupin painting images of the open West. Taupin continues the Americana with “The Ballad of Blind Tom,” an ode to pianist Blind Tom Wiggins. The song’s narrative reads and sounds as if it were written for a musical, but it’s an effective standalone work. Elton keeps up the gospel- and old school country-influenced stylings on “Take This Dirty Water” and “Mexican Vacation (The Kids in the Candlelight).”

“Home Again,” the album’s first single, is a top shelf ballad that I’m sure will quickly find itself in his Greatest Hits canon. Single or not, it’s a crown jewel of the album and one of the best songs Elton’s written in years. “The New Fever Waltz” and “My Quicksand” are the other ballads, with the latter being the album’s weakest link for me. For those looking for a more recent “Elton sound” a la Songs From the West Coast or The Captain & The Kid, “Can’t Stay Along Tonight” and “Voyeur” scratch that adult contemporary itch. There are also three standalone instrumental interludes, each being a numbered “Dream.” None are as robust as “Funeral for a Friend,” but each provides a nice respite while moving the action along. The album closes with the title track, a mellow lounge number suggestive of a last call.

This could be my favorite of Elton’s late-era albums. If you’ve kept a safe distance from his recent output, this could be your foot in the door. As for me, I’m going to give it yet another spin…

Amazon Link
iTunes Link

New Listen: The Fencemen’s ‘Times Are Alright’

[Disclaimer: I am associated with this band and album (one song). But don’t let that fool you; I’m writing from purely a listener’s – fan‘s – perspective.]

Artist: The Fencemen
Album: Times Are Alright (2012)

Get ready to rock. Hard.

Lansing’s The Fencemen have been stomping around Michigan since late 2010. Clocking in at just under 38 minutes, their debut album packs a tight, mean punch. The quartet wrote and recorded Times Are Alright throughout 2011 and into the first part of this year. Although it’s the band’s first album, the individual members are hardly novices, bringing together their years of collective experience performing, recording, and touring with regionally- and nationally-successful acts Small Brown Bike, LaSalle, BiddyBiddyBiddy, and Ettison Clio. I learned of them a few months back when a mutual friend put us in touch, as they were looking to possibly add some horn as the finishing touch to one song. I recorded some tracks at my home studio and sent them off. Having somewhat forgotten about it, I received the finished track (and eventually the whole album) a few weeks later and was floored. And instantly a fan.[1. This is why I’m comfortable writing an objective review: I was quite divorced from the overall process and didn’t really know the band until the record was almost finished. And they in no way asked me to write this.]

This is a rock album, driven by guitars (Mike Reed), bass (Jared Nisch), drums (Dan Jaquint), and vocals (Tyler Blakslee). The band effectively seasons its sonic palette with just enough keys, “horns, tambourines, and foot-stomps” to nicely round out the sound without detracting from the core quartet. Save one song, the auxiliary instruments – handled mostly in-house – adamantly remain in the background. Instruments aside, the music is aggressive, visceral, and catchy. And gritty. You can’t help but tap (stomp!) your feet and shake a tailfeather when listening. It rocks hard throughout and enjoys a fair bit of chaos, but there’s always a melody or hook nearby to grab onto. “Call Me A Crooked Heart” is a wonderful opening volley, carefully setting the tone for the rest of the album. Stomping, guitars, bass, and voice entreat the listener to let loose as the ensemble gently builds through the second verse until exploding into the dark, droning second chorus and outro. There’s no turning back: “Nation & Ghost” then kicks it up a notch or three with Reed’s guitars mounting an all-out assault over the rhythm section’s tribal dance.

Rob Gordon suggests cooling it down a notch for the third track. “Rented Rooms” offers a brief respite with its sampled clarinet introduction, but otherwise it’s right back to rocking. The instrumentation is noticeably augmented here with the prominent use of tenor saxophone (yours truly), wailing above and scurrying about the quartet. It’s “live” implementation is a nice juxtaposition with the earlier sample. After these first three medium-tempo rockers, “New Turks” kicks you into overdrive with an uptempo, optimistic romp, imploring you to “clap [your] hands in victory.” Make sure you’re near a dance floor to do so. “Heart Heart of The City” offers your adrenaline a slight breather, but the contemplative “Violent Domestic” and caffeinated “Soft Spot for the Reckless” get you back to rocking hard.

The final three songs are a climb back towards the light. “Knives,” musically, is perhaps the darkest song on the record. Scratchy timbres and wailing guitars abound. This soundscape abruptly gives way to the anthemic “Get Into the Light,” an arena-rock song if I’ve ever heard one – an epic number with all the fixins: catchy guitar riffs, pounding bass and drums, background vocals, half-time chorus, mellow outro. (You can easily picture the audience singing along with the house lights up.) “Century Blues” closes the album on a joyous note: “This ain’t no concession, this here is a hundred years of light.” Despite the final song’s gradually-building intensity, its optimism and slower tempo offer listeners a first chance to catch their breath – a sigh of satisfaction and accomplishment. After being thrown to the lions, everything’s fine.

To me, the music’s grit is its key ingredient to why it’s so infectious. While minor chords and edgy timbres run rampant like the rats and jackals Blakslee describes, neither the music nor the message are ultimately glum. Supported by an undertow of optimism, the album is a sonic representation of the band’s rustbelt hometown – industrial and downtrodden, but with the resolve to come back swinging harder and stronger than before. Arguably the most effective example of this aesthetic is “Soft Spot for the Reckless.” (And of course it occurs at the Golden Section…) Its dark verses describe “a soft spot for the reckless, a ballad for the damned.” Yet the major-mode choruses and outro speak to resilience: “They don’t move to any piper’s tune…And down on No Luck Avenue, they will play the ‘Crooked Mercy Blues’ but they won’t move.”

But you’ll move to Times Are Alright. Guaranteed.

Purchase via:
Amazon — iTunes — eMusic — GooglePlay — Live Shows

New Listens: Recent hit parade

Holiday travel and a busy start to 2011 really slowed down the New Listen posts. However, I’ve still been acquiring and absorbing all kinds of new albums the last few months. Instead of giving a blow-by-blow account of each one, I thought I’d simply list them in “autobiographical” order (to reference the great Rob Gordon in High Fidelity). They’re all quite good, and some of them – notably Anniversary!, Mostly Coltrane, and King of Limbs, among others – were instant classics in my library.

I’m often curious as to what others are listening to, which is why I wanted to offer something about the new music I’ve acquired over the last few months. Hopefully, now that I’m a bit “caught up” in that department, the New Listens will resume regular appearances. 🙂 Feel free to email me for any specific descriptions/questions.

Dave Matthews Band: Live Trax Vol. 19: Vivo Rio – 09.30.08, Rio De Janeiro, Brazil
Dave Matthews Band: Live in New York CityThe Big Apple
Stan Getz: Anniversary!
Herbie Hancock: Fat Albert Rotunda
Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band: The E Street Shuffle
Air: Moon Safari
Dave Liebman: As Always
Dave Liebman: Negative Space
Grateful Dead: American Beauty
Grateful Dead: From the Mars Hotel
Grateful Dead: Truckin’ Up To Buffalo (Live 07.04.89)
Trio Mediaeval: Stella Maris
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers: Into The Great Wide Open
Steve Kuhn Trio w. Joe Lovano: Mostly Coltrane
Elton John: The Big Picture
Dave Liebman: Lookout Farm 1974/75 (Deluxe Edition) – box set
Dave Liebman: Quest Live 1988 + 1991 (Deluxe Edition) – box set
Jenny & Johnny: I’m Having Fun Now
Jeff Coffin: Commonality
Nine Inch Nails: Ghosts I-IV
Nine Inch Nails: Pretty Hate Machine
Radiohead: King of Limbs
Grant Green: Grantstand
Rilo Kiley: Take Offs and Landings
Smashing Pumpkins: Teargarden by Kaleidyscope (gradual, as released…)

New Listen: Rolf Lislevand’s ‘Diminuito’

Artist: Rolf Lislevand
Album: Diminuito (2009)

Reinforcing the aforementioned eclectic nature of this series, this week’s selection comes from the Italian Renaissance.  Actually, it’s a quite modern taken on music written during the Renaissance.  Here, Rolf Lislevand, a leading Baroque and Renaissance lutenist, leads an ensemble of early music performance specialists through stirring renditions on centuries-old music.  (I emphasize “performance specialists,” as there’s often a distinct difference between performers and researchers in academia – a topic I’ll likely return to in the near future.)  As with Manu Katché’s Third Round, this was a completely blind purchase, having known neither the main performer nor any of the pieces – only the style.  While many early music recordings can be hit or miss, I considered this worth the chance for two reasons:

1. It’s part of ECM New Series, the classical branch of ECM.
2. It includes vocalists Linn Andrea Fuglseth and Anna Maria Friman, two-thirds of Trio Mediaeval. I blindly purchased their Folk Songsa collection of Medieval Scandinavian songs – this past spring and thoroughly enjoy it.

The instrumentation varies throughout, with particular feature on plucked strings.  It includes lutes (many, many lutes), nyckelharpa, clavichord, organ, percussion, voice, vihuela de mano, triple harp, and more.  Not every instrument is used for every number; this helps keep the ensemble sounding fresh for the album’s entirety.  As mentioned above, much of the music comes from the Italian Renaissance, specifically the Veneto region (north).  In listening to the recording and reading the liner notes (written by Lislevand himself, and directed toward a more musicologically-informed reader, perhaps unintentionally), it’s quickly evident that all involved are very historically informed.  They interpret the music not only as well-rehearsed performers but they also offer a musicological rigor.  (This goes beyond simply using an urtext edition!)

Furthermore, what maintain the listener’s interest are not only the technical or the intellectual aspects, but the visceral.  This album is FUN!  For those familiar with Renaissance music, you likely know that many texts discuss the music’s – often fun – role in court life.  However it’s often hard to sense much fun when listening to it.  (Rigid interpretations of transcriptions and/or arrangements are often the weapon of choice.)  Diminuito, on the other hand, helps Renaissance music live up to the hype.  The ensemble, under Lislevand’s leadership, take liberties and focus heavily on improvisation, something often discussed academically but forgotten in “practice” (i.e., historical reconstruction).  Much like jazz standards, the pieces are often given some variation of the “head-solo-head” treatment.  Also, Lislevand takes liberties with the compositions, often combining multiple pieces to create new arrangements.  My personal favorites, and those that perhaps best exemplify Lislevand’s approach, are “Petit Jacquet/Quinta Pars” and the whirlwind “La Perra Mora.”  Simply close your eyes and you’ll feel like you’re at a soirée with the local nobility!  (500 years ago, that is.)

Breathing fresh air into centuries-old music, Lislevand & Co. prove that Renaissance music was lively and full of spirit.  Most of all, they prove it is still relevant!

Amazon Link
iTunes Link