CD Review: Manu Katché (ECM), the legendary drummer’s self-titled 4th album is a thing of beauty

The 4th ECM release from Manu Katché would be a life’s work for many musicians, certainly for drummers. For the latter, it’d be enough to articulate so cleanly, shades of Billy Gladstone, on snare drum and have it recorded so faithfully that if you’re a nerd like me and lean-close, you detect wire strands rustling at ppp. And at ff, this beautiful harmonic arises in “Running After Years” each time the stick catches rim and batter simultaneously—it’s a stinging overtone less visionary producers and drummers would banish with gate or tape. That’s the story unfolding by bar-8; but there’s more to say, namely that each of the songs is finely crafted and blessed with melody.

This leads me to an admonition. Buy this album. At very least, don’t consider  downloading Manu Katché as an MP3. The nuances on the master are that pronounced. To hear time thrusting forward, as if the product of the tiny, geared wheels of a Rolex…instead of pounded out…is precious. Especially when the drummer doesn’t budge but bends according to his peers’ contributions and in such a relaxed manner. Drummers are fed up hearing about how they ought to generate intensity by other means than sheer dB levels. Perhaps this album will offer a refreshing example of the higher road. Either way it is deeply funky…cloaked in the tux/tails of the concert percussionist.

The folkloric vibe is established in the first two tracks, which sit tight in a bright 6/8, or maybe 6/4 time signature. They’re not, but they might as well be, in-clavé, such is the reality that once Manu Katché establishes the groove, it’s held with religious fervor, which includes exacting attention to each trill and drag. Way down there, quietly holding things together yet wonderfully audible in the mix, they exhibit Manu’s typical observance of note values…nothing buzzed or glitched. Each track is a study, indeed a lesson, every apprentice engineer, and drummer, ought to absorb. Of course, the same goes for Manu’s three previous ECM albums, which get airplay in my house. This time out, however, there’s something else at work.

What I’m noticing is a frighteningly broad dynamic range—the harnessing of a broad-bandwidth in service of a more open, if it were possible, airy ambiance. Yes, it’s true that ECM producer Manfred Eicher wears this on his sleeve (and probably has legato tattooed somewhere the sun doesn’t shine), on Manu Katché I found this thing more pronounced than usual. The fluidity and natural reverb doesn’t sacrifice the plentiful detail (Faulkner: “life is in the details”), sometimes the unintended consequence of the distant-miking approach. In fact, I was so intrigued, my mind whirling with potentially spurious assumptions regarding the recording process and intent, I decided to ask Manu, whom, you may recall, I discussed in a previous article, whether I was onto something when typifying this album as more “roomy” in overall sound.

Manu speaks about ambiance

Manu first thanked me for alluding to Faulkner. I mean, how else could I describe an album I’ve been playing steadily for four weeks and keep discovering new timbres, tones, and phrases? Add to this the plentiful bottom end despite the absence of a bassist on the sessions—organ pedals suffice on several tunes. I figured it was worth a query to the artist. I guess that signals the end of impartiality in a CD review.

Concerning the overall sound,” Manu replied, “there is more, as you noticed, and I could explain this partly due to there being no bass. It’s a case of no-bass-more-space! When a drummer plays with a bass player, they try to lock as much as they can, playing together so that they almost sound like one person. The drummer follows the bassist and vice verse. By not using a bass, it leaves the drummer freedom to play around the melody—or groove the way he wants. So, of course, by having the bass generated by a Hammond organ, it is much more like having a bass entity surrounding, or enveloping, which gives me the liberty to change my approach and my emphasis.

You’re correct, though, in that I wanted to make this album more ambient. Nils Petter plays a large part in this with his unique sounds and special effects—it makes the whole thing float in a different sphere than the usual concert orientation. You mentioned that the organist sounds more ‘church’ than Jimmy Smith. To me,the organ sounds more bluesy than jazzy, which gives that little something else to the melodies I write.”

Regarding my questions on miking and mixing, Manu revealed that there were no unusual miking schemes or favoritism with regard to overhead or room microphones (other than the obvious ECM “fluid rustle” approach). Same studio, same miking as the last album.

I think what you may have noticed,” continued Manu, “is something in the way I played the drums on this album. I played with a little more confidence, maybe. I allowed myself to be myself. As far as your observation on analog vs digital, I think digital is fine when the music is full of nuances.”

Sacrificing the album review medium?

Is this an album review or a seminar on drums? I haven’t spoken enough about the compositions, mainly because, with one exception, they’re devoid of drum solos—but rich in drumming detail if you turn the knob clockwise. We can’t posit comparisons with jazz standards, unless, perhaps, the appearance of three vs four juxtapositions/deceptions that pervade this collection in the manner of “Footprints”.

One certainty is that Manu Katché swings but otherwise pays scant attention to jazz conventions. And although it’s funky, it’s distant from the “instrumental R & B” (to use Michael White’s description of contemporary easy-listening fare)..This is a higher order, although, again, the folkloric dance thread runs deep. An obvious love for drum sounds permeates the album but not to the point where clever licks prevail, not even in the solo on “Loose”, typically understated and phrased over a groove.

The news and the weather report

Hate to say this, in one sense, but I feel that the late Joe Zawinul came close to this reconciliation of groove and melody—on a handful of tunes. Why his name comes to mind is that on the few occasions when he’s not an electric drill he’s wandering in the land of melody and harmony with this sort of drumming in mind.

Our man Manu Katché accomplishes this track after track. Having interviewed them both on more than one occasion, I’m thinking that Manu and Paco Seri share a rhythmic heritage that celebrates adherence to groove. Paco did a long stint with Zawinul and it’s my feeling he would have reached further had he the opportunity to interpret songs, such as Manu’s, to work with and not mere vamps.

On his fourth ECM album, Manu has nothing to prove. Unless you’re relatively unaware of what he does, in which instance you’re the beneficiary of a wealth of deft drumming.

Funny, as I concluded the first of many drafts of this atypical review, the CD carousel shuffled me off to Merle Haggard and his rendition of the heartfelt tune “If I Could Only Fly”. The segue was effortless; there was no culture shock.

Songs are songs, however few and far between these days. Drumming is drumming and it’s abundant. I’ll take the former over the latter any day of the week. In the album Manu Katché I get both.