World class drummer Manu Katché continues to pursue a second musical career as a bandleader with his third ECM release (and fourth overall) on Third Round. His second ECM Playground was warmly greeted here when it first appeared three years ago, and his label debut was quite good, too, so we were eager to see if Katché could make it three for three.
Third Round isn't an abrupt departure from the spacious, subtle European jazz of Playround or Neighborhood, but it is a marked progression. Both the personnel line-up and the instrumentation had changed; gone are the young Norwegain sax/horn line of Trygve Seim and Mathias Eick, replaced by a more seasoned Norwegian saxophonist, Tore Brunborg. The Poles playing piano (Marcin Wasilewski) and double-bass (Slawomir Kurkiewwicz) are replaced by the English piano and Fender Rhodes player Jason Rebello and the Welsh electric bassist Pino Palladino. Jacob Young adds some guitar on four of the tracks. So for the first time on ECM, Katché has departed from the all-acoustic format.
Perhaps remarkably, it still sounds unmistakeably like a Manu Katché record. Credit some of that to label founder Manfred Eicher's pristine production approach, which places value on the intervals between the notes as much as the notes themselves, and a steadfast adherence to the collective being more important than any one player. But also credit Katché's compositions, which like the prior two records, are a major focal point of his music. As a drummer, Katché appreciates a good groove, and they are plentiful here again, but he composes melodies that involve everyone, and are catchy and substantial at the same time. Once again, he resists the temptation to use his records as a platform to launch into drum solos. He makes his mastery of the kit evident from behind the front line. His flourishes, prudent use of fills and African-derived beats are trademarks that don't need to be thrown in your face to appreciate.
The departure from his prior ECM's can't be ignored, though. It starts with the bassist. Pino Palladino, like Katché, is a first-call sessionist and sideman to rock and pop's biggest names. I first remember seeing his name in the credits on Don Henley'sBuilding The Perfect Beast a full 25 years ago, but he had prior and since also played for Eric Clapton Paul Simon, Chaka Khan, Jeff Beck, as well as BB King and Roy Hargrove. Twenty-five years is also about long he and Katché have played together in various bands for various rock stars. And like Katché, Palladino has a fantastic aptitude for jazz even as he plays an plugged-in instrument. Together, the two make a formidable rhythm section that makes everyone else's job easier.
Swing Piece," the opening track, doesn't swing hard in the more common sense, but instead is a lighter swing that Katché knows how to cultivate with ease. Brunborg doesn't so much improvise as he caresses the melody with a Garbarek-esque airiness. The tempo picks up for Keep On Trippin'" (see official video below) where Katché's marvelous fills and attention to the finer sonorities of his kit really begin to assert itself. Brunborg and Rebello communicate the main harmonies, Young quietly improvises over it and Palladino has a counter-groove going on his bass. It all works together well. That's how most of the rest of the album works, too. Of the remainder tracks, crisp Being Ben" and the urbane Shine And Blue" are the prime cuts.
Kami Lyle, who also adds a little trumpet, sings for the lone vocal number of the album Stay With You." Her fragile and breathy voice might appeal to some listeners, but not to yours truly. This low key torch song is a departure from the rest of the record, and it's one I usually skip over because it disturbs the overall flow of the album.
But for those who are fans of Lyle, it's a treat that puts Katché's latest go around on par with the first two rounds. For the rest of us, Third Round remains very much a worthwhile purchase.