Manu Katche: Play As You Are

Ian Patterson By

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Manu Katché is one of the most original drummers anywhere, defying categorization and straddling musical genres with ease and flair. A French national of Ivorian background, he has turned his hand to pop, rock, fusion and jazz, and his exposure to all these elements, plus his classical training, is indelibly stamped in a playing style all his own.

For over 20 years, Katché has toured and recorded with such iconic figures as Sting and Peter Gabriel, bringing his highly distinctive time keeping to their music and touring all over the world. As a sideman, he has recorded with an impressive array of musicians and songwriters and has played on Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek's recordings for nearly two decades.

It was his drumming on ex-The Band guitarist Robbie Robertson's "Somewhere Down the Lazy River"—from his eponymous 1987 Geffen album—that first caught the attention of ECM producer Manfred Eicher, beginning a long association with the legendary German record label. Still, Katché didn't record as a leader for the label until 2005—an 11-year hiatus following the release of Stick Around (Zildjian, 1994). Neighbourhood (ECM, 2005) was met with considerable critical and popular acclaim, followed two years later by Playground (ECM, 2007).

Katché is currently touring to promote his third release on ECM, the appropriately titled Third Round (2010). The music on all three ECM discs is highly melodious and gently lyrical, combining the brevity of pop tunes in the writing, with a stripped-down jazz approach to the playing. It is music that is fresh, accessible and groove-based.

With a new lineup of musicians, Third Round offers subtle textural contrasts to Katché's previous ECM recordings without straying too far from a style that Katché is refining and honing into a highly personal and distinctive sound.

The host of a highly successful TV music show in France, as well as a weekly radio show, Katché has limited time to appear as a sideman these days, though after 20 years of playing for other people, Katché is stepping forward with sure feet (and hands) as a leader in his own right.

All About Jazz: Can you tell us how much work went into this recording, because it's something that many people rarely think about.

Manu Katché: Of course it's a lot of work when you write music, but I write music all year 'round. I write on the piano and then I put a demo on the computer. I print out the charts and I send everything to everyone. The principal work was getting what I wanted sound-wise. I really had in mind Pino [Palladino] and Jason Rebello and Tore Brunborg and Kami [Lyle] to form the sound. Finally, when we recorded, it took three days. It was very intense because we started at ten in the morning and finished around ten at night. We weren't trying to change the structure; we were trying to get the right attitude, the right approach and the right sound.

Manfred Eicher is very good as a producer in the old-school way; he lets you play around and then he says, "Okay I think you're reaching something. Keep on doing this; forget about that," and after a while he'll get us to do a take. It was a lot of work to find the right approach between ourselves. It was challenging to get as good as we could. I think when you listen to the album, it's more or less a continuation of what I've done before, but I really wanted to sound a little bit different so I used electric bass and a little bit of Fender Rhodes. I wrote most of the themes for soprano saxophone and I asked Tore to try and find different elements and approach to what I'd done before.

AAJ: There is quite a similarity in sound between Third Round and your previous two CDs as leader on ECM, but also some notable differences, and I wonder if the title signifies a trilogy in compositional terms and maybe the end of a cycle at the same time?

MK: I think when I did this album, I had in mind to be a little bit more myself on the drums, which doesn't mean that before I wasn't—just that instead of doing the punctuation, the syntax, I wanted to try and put more into it. I would say that it's definitely a little bit of a different approach. Before, we were a quintet and I'm very happy how we sound as a quartet. It gives space, and when you use electric instruments, you can use sustain more than with acoustic instruments. That's maybe what makes you think it's a bit different and the end of a way of composing for ECM, but I don't think so; I think it's very me sound wise.

You know, I've been doing a lot of rock music for a long time, and when I started the ECM project I just concentrated on going for the emotion and sensitivity without any effects. I'm not saying it's not the case on this one, but now I think I'm gradually bringing my knowledge from the rock music industry and my way of approaching the music into the music I make with ECM.

AAJ: You've had a long association with ECM, particularly with Jan Garbarek, which stretches back many years; how did you first get to work with ECM?

MK: When I met Jan I met Manfred. Manfred heard me on record; I remember it was "Somewhere Down the Crazy River" by Robbie Robertson. Actually, it comes from a jam from myself. I thought to myself that if they like this rhythm, this groove, then they like my style in a way. It was clear that they wanted to change direction rhythmically. It was very easy working with Jan. Of course he's a legend, but he was so nice and so warm, and everything we did at the time worked instantly.

AAJ: Did you choose Tore Brunborg because his sound is somewhat evocative of Jan Garbarek?

MK: Of course he sounds very close to Jan, though the phrasing is different. Jan, of course, has marked the sound of Northern Europe, particularly Norway. On my second album, Playground (ECM, 205), I had Trygve Seim because he was recommended by Manfred Eicher. When we went on tour, his partner was pregnant and he was unable to complete the tour. I told him having a baby is the best thing in the world, so you have to be with her and not with me. He said he could recommend me a guy who is an amazing artist, and he gave me a record by Tore. I heard his playing, his phrasing and his sound and I thought, "Wow, that's the guy I want."

The first time we met was in France and he came straight to the gig. Of course he had all the records in advance and the set list, but he just played wonderfully, just beautifully. I told him that was exactly what I had in mind. We feel very comfortable together, very at ease. I told him I would love to have him on my next record.

When we did the record, I was very comfortable with Pino and Jason, who I've played with for many years, and I felt like I knew Tore after touring. I asked him to use some effects on the soprano saxophone even though he knew little about using effects, but I wanted him to bring something in that would make him play just a little different, and with cause and effect maybe lead to something else.

AAJ: He certainly leaves a big mark on Third Round.

MK: Yeah, he does.

AAJ: Most of the songs on Third Round are under or around four minutes, and they're very melodious which is more typical of pop songs...

MK: You're absolutely right. I don't even think about this when I write. I've been playing with pop artists for more than 20 years, so I'm used to their structure. The way I listen to the music and the way I approach it is very much pop—I'm just talking about the structures of my compositions. Even if it's instrumental music like jazz, I'm not a big fan on record of—which is different than on stage— having 150 bars of improvisation. I think that when you listen to a record you just go for a trip, and if the trip is too long you get bored, unless you are Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett, John Coltrane or Miles Davis, which I'm not.

I love melodies and I try to be as melodic as I can, even when I play drums, and I think when you listen to Third Round, you go for a little trip. When we play live, of course, we go a little bit more for the improvisation but not too far away, not going crazy. The audiences are pleased because maybe they are not used to that way of structuring in instrumental music, but they react very positively to it. It's in, and not so long after, it's out, and they appreciate that.

AAJ: There are a couple of very short numbers on the album, "Out Take Number 9" and "Urban Shadow," and both of these compositions end at surprising times, leaving the listener wishing that they had gone on—particularly the former, which sounds like a feature for you as the drummer. Why did you make it so short?

MK: When we played it in the studio, it was nice. I was pleased, but not pleased enough. It's funny you should say that, because it really features myself and I thought, "When we do it live, we're going to have plenty of time to feature my drumming," but on the record it didn't reach what I was expecting, maybe because we had just three days to record and that track was recorded pretty much at the end of the session. I didn't want to get crazy with it, and I liked the vibe of it as a short piece. We'll get to it on stage, don't worry.

The other one, "Urban Shadow" has no drums on it. I'd tried that track live with the band before, and I used brushes or mallets sometimes, but I thought it sounded better without me. The others said, "Manu, it's a drummer's record. We can't do that." I said, "We can do whatever we want." It has a beautiful atmosphere and the drums do not bring something else to it, which means it doesn't need drums. If I was the producer I might think, "Maybe we need that drummer on it," but as it was, it sounded compact and beautiful and intense with these guys playing on it, so I wanted them to play on their own.

AAJ: What drum setup do you use on Third Round?



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