Enjoy Jazz Festival: Heidelberg / Mannheim / Ludwigshafen, Germany, October 30-November 7, 2012
Since coming to ECM Records in 2006 with Neighbourhood, Manu Katché has been building a discography predicated on grooveno surprise, given the French drummer has been at the core of countless recordings and tours by other musicians, most recently Peter Gabriel's Back to Front tour, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the British singer/songwriter's hit album, So (Real World, 1986). But it's been within the context of his own music, and his own recordings for the German labelwhich now number four, including the recently issued Manu Katché (2012), that he's blossomed as not just a fine player, but a strong writer and affable band leader.
All three qualities were on display for the packed house at Mannheim's Alte Feuerwache, which clearly included its fair share of drummers in the crowd, right down to aspiring young teenagers, eager to see the masterful Katché in performance for the first time. The drummer was touring on the back of Manu Katché, though only one of that album's quartet members was on-hand, Norwegian saxophonist Tore Brunborg, who also appeared on Katché's previous Third Round (ECM, 2010). Brunborg's own international star has been on the rise, the result of an increasing number of ECM appearances including pianist Tord Gustavsen's recent The Well (ECM, 2012), and the saxophonist was having a particularly good night, here in Mannheim.
Whether playing tenor saxophone or curved sopranoand whether keeping things pure or introducing some processing, like the harmonizer he brought into his solos on more than one occasionBrunborg's recent upswing in activity is clearly creating a context for him to grow as a player. At one time (like so many Norwegian saxophonists) something of a Jan Garbarek clone, Brunborg has long since transcended such reductionist comparisons, though he shares a similar attention to tone, sparseness of phrasing and devotion to melody at the center of what he does.
It might have been unfortunate, upfront, to learn that Manu Katché's trumpeter, Nils Petter MolværBrunborg's quintet mate in the original incarnation of Masqualero, the remarkable group that also featured up-and-coming pianist Jon Balke and ECM stalwarts, bassist Arild Andersen and Jon Christensenwouldn't be available, but another of Enjoy Jazz's welcome surprises was Katché's recruitment of Italian trumpeter Luca Aquino, to take his place. Like Molvær, Aquinoa younger player yet to crack 40may have employed electronics to process his sound, but his approach towhether acoustic or processedwas all his own, as was his focused approach to melody, despite demonstrating some clear virtuoso chops on tunes like the grooving andin its waysinging version of "Keep on Trippin,'" from Third Round. His own discography may be small, but his most recent Chiaro (Tük, 2011), featuring a Norwegian trio with bassist Audun Erlien and drummer Wetle Holte (both members of groups with artists like guitarist Eivind Aarset), establishes a direct aesthetic connection between Italy and Scandinavia, making him a more than suitable partner for Brunborgthough to suggest that everything they did fit that overused term "Nordic cool" couldn't have been farther from the truth.
Still, much of Katché's set was certainly cool, though the quartet kicked it up a few notches on tracks like the post-bop of Manu Katché's "Short Ride," where organist/pianist Mike Gormanmore than capably substituting for the album's Jimmy Watsoncreated a strong harmonic foundation for the two-horn melody, while using his bass pedals to drive a swinging solo section. He may spend much of his time in backing bands for British pop artists like Boy George/Culture Club and Kid Creole and the Coconuts, but he quickly clarified his broad reach, whether holding down the low end of this bass-less group on "Beats & Bounce" or delivering a gentle but ever-so-slightly outré solo on the balladic "Loving You.
"After the show, Gorman discussed one of the realities of being a touring jazz artist: that a leader needs to have a cadre of players from whom he/she can draw to tour, since everyone is so busy with multiple projects that keeping a lineup stable is a luxury few can manage. Still, it's important to ensure that, even if choosing different players for a touror, as was the case here, part of a tour, with Gorman substituting on Katché's tour for just a couple weeks before the album's keyboardist was again availablethat there's always the kind of chemistry necessary to bring the music to life. Based on Katché's performance with this group: mission accomplished.
Katché was his usual effervescent self; an animated player who'd lean back in his drum chair and lift his feet off the ground as he prepared to dive in and execute another of his seemingly impossible marriages of booty shaking groove, textural breadth and loose, interpretive interaction. He soloed rarelyand spoke to the audience even lessbut when he did, it was filled with invention, rare virtuosity and absolutely compositional construction. And when he did speak to his audience, he made clear that it was their energy that made his group play all the better.