It may not appear until the fourth track in, but the propulsive "So Groovy" could easily have been the title for the follow-up to Manu Katche's award-winning ECM debut, 2005's Neighbourhood. Still, Playground is no less fitting since it's an album that demonstrateswith three-fifths of Neighbourhood's members reconvened, and two younger but emergent players replacing the heavy-hitting front line of saxophonist Jan Garbarek and trumpeter Tomasz Stankothat the chemistry of that first disc was more than happy coincidence.
Pianist Marcin Wasilewski and bassist Slawomir Kurkiewiczhalf of Stanko's current quartetare back, and the palpable evolution they've shown with their older mentor over the course of three albums, culminating in Lontano (ECM, 2006), continues to be felt. Wasilewski's influences, most notably that of Herbie Hancock, have become more assimilated as his own voice, a compelling combination of delicate but accessible abstraction and a more extroverted touch, continuing to crystallize. Kurkiewicz, whose role with Stanko began more supportively, is no less an anchor hereespecially since Katche's music is inherently more groove-centricbut the greater capacity for freedom and interplay that's evolved through his time with Stanko is also more upfront on Playground.
Both saxophonist Trygve Seim, who has been playing with Katche since late 2005, and trumpeter Mathias Eickno stranger to Seim as part of Finnish pianist/harpist Iro Haarla's quintet, responsible for Northbound (ECM, 2006)are part of a new wave of Norwegian artists being championed by the label, and for good reason. While Garbarek is an undeniable influence on Seim, especially in his attention to tone and nuance, the younger saxophonist possesses a warmer timbre. Eick's tone is likewise warmer, more Kenny Wheeler's clarity than Stanko's characteristic rasp. Both are economical players with a keen ability to find unexpected melodies, and they mesh beautifully in the front line.
Katche's strength as a writer is to create relatively clear and lyrical contexts for the quintet to interact, from the tender melancholy of "Lo," one of two tracks to feature a textural guest appearance from guitarist David Torn, to the more upbeat and assertive "So Groovy." As a player, the same strength that has propelled him to a position of high demand with artists ranging from Peter Gabriel and Sting to Garbareka loose but unmistakable approach to rhythm that's unassailable but never heavy-handedis given free reign here. Like his band mates, he's a thoughtful player without ever feeling overly considered.
Whether it's his own brand of funk on the backbeat-driven "Project 58," the more relaxed yet firm pulse of "Possible Thought" or the fiery energy of "Clubbing," Katche manages to imbue a kind of pop sensibility without resorting to shtick. Playground is, like its predecessor, first and foremost an outstandingly honest record and proves, yet again, that accessible music needn't be lightweight or predictable.
Personnel: Manu Katche: drums; Marcin Wasilewski: piano; Slawomir Kurkiewicz: double-bass; Trygve Seim: tenor and soprano saxophones; Mathias Eick: trumpet; David Torn: guitar (1, 12).