“Neighbourhood was a beginning,” says Manu Katché, of his widely-praised ECM leader debut which received the Jahrespreis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik (yearly award of the German Record Critics), an album-of-the-year prize from France’s Jazz Magazine (Disque d'émoi de l'année), and numerous other awards. “It was a meeting. Since then, we’ve been on the road together, established some codes in the way we interact. And I’ve found out more about the other guys’ playing abilities, especially Marcin (Wasilewski) and Slawomir (Kurkiewicz), and I knew we would work more together. So the music for Playground was concepted also with them in mind. In this sense, the new disc is a continuation. It’s exploring similar areas, but I think there is more coherence, more ensemble togetherness...and I’ve also grabbed a bit more space for me and the drums, while on Neighbourhood I’d made the decision to keep myself mostly behind the soloists.”
Playground, in brief, begins where Neighbourhood left off, with a revised line-up and a tighter focus. Saxophonist Trygve Seim has been in the live group since late 2005, taking over from Jan Garbarek. Newest addition to the band is another young Norwegian, trumpeter Mathias Eick. Mathias and Trygve have some history together – both appear as members of Finnish pianist/harpist Iro Haarla’s group on Northbound (recorded 2004) and Eick has also worked with Seim’s ensemble on occasion (including this year’s Oregon Jazz Festival). With Polish pianist Marcin Wasilewski and bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz sharing more than fifteen years playing experience together as members of their own Simply Acoustic Trio and, latterly, as half of the Tomasz Stanko Quartet, Katché’s group draws on a web of proven playing associations, with the unique qualities of Manu’s drumming simultaneously triggering fresh responses from each of the players. Manu Katché’s approach sets him apart from most contemporary jazz drummers. His agile rhythms build patterns, frameworks of pulses that nudge and lift the horn players, or lock into deep grooves with piano and bass.
“I’m always trying to put patterns together and to make a groove out of them, and to colour things. That’s basic to my concept of music-making whether I’m playing jazz or rock or anything else, whether I’m playing my music or working with Sting or Peter Gabriel or whoever. I’m building a groove to inspire the soloists and, hopefully, myself.”
Playground was recorded in January 2007 in New York’s Avatar Studios, with Manfred Eicher, who helped assemble the bands for both of Katché’s ECM discs, as producer, and James Farber engineering. Manu notes that “New York of course has a phenomenal energy level, and there’s something magical about the place too: at least that’s how Europeans experience it. So there we were as musicians together in a country we don’t belong to, feeding off the special vibe of New York City. I think you can hear that in the music.” Upstate New Yorker David Torn dropped by to add local colour and guitar atmospherics to the album’s opening and closing cuts. Otherwise the album is all-acoustic, but bristling with natural energy – on the ballads (“Lo”, “Song for Her”, “Morning Joy”) as well as the harder-hitting uptempo pieces (“So Groovy”, “Clubbing”). “The whole thing was done very quickly,” Manu recalls. Manfred Eicher adds, “With each of the participating musicians contributing to the realization of Manu’s musical ideas, and helping to build something new upon the structural framework of his tunes, the progress made in the course of this three-day session was indeed inspiring.” The drummer and the producer returned to New York to mix the Playground album together in February.
Emmanuel ‘Manu’ Katché was born in St Maur des Fossés, near Paris, in 1958, though his family roots go back to Africa’s Ivory Coast. He studied piano from the age of 5, switching to drums at 14 and studying classical percussion at the Conservatoire National Supérieure de Musique de Paris. He has often said that his drum style is essentially an amalgam of African rhythm concepts and classical drumming, illuminated by the in-the-moment interaction of jazz. “When I play jazz I get called a ‘rock drummer’. When I do rock projects, critics write about ‘the jazz drummer Manu Katché’. But I’m just being myself, trying to be innovative as the music is played, and I guess that is more of a ‘jazz’ attitude.”
Music on ECM had been one of Katché’s teenage inspirations: “I heard my first ECM album when I was about fifteen, and I remember I was amazed by the sound and by the way the music was played: big and bold but with a lot of respect for silence and a real musical balance between the instruments...” He was to arrive at the label by an indirect route, however. By the mid-1980s his floating beat had become one of the signature sounds of pop and rock, sup-porting singers from Joni Mitchell to Peter Gabriel. Manfred Eicher heard Katché playing on Robbie Robertson’s untitled Geffen album and felt that his pulses and patterns, simulta-neously modern and tribal, could easily be adapted to improvised contexts.
Invited to participate in ECM’s 20th anniversary concerts in Paris in 1989, Katché played first in a trio with Jan Garbarek - and Indian violinist Shankar - in a concert at La Cigale. The encounter was to lead to Katché’s membership of Garbarek’s touring bands and his presence on a series of albums: I Took Up The Runes, Ragas and Sagas, Twelve Moons, Visible World, In Praise Of Dreams. Manu recently rejoined Jan’s band for several months of live work with concerts until the end of 2007 in Germany, Belgium, Ireland, the Netherlands, Turkey, Portugal and Switzerland. In between, in September and October 2007 Katché plays selected concerts with the Playground line-up. An extensive 2008 tour for the Manu Katché group in Europe is currently being finalized.
See www.ecmrecords.com/tours for all current dates and venues.