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Manu Katché’s first leader date for ECM finds him fronting a remarkable band, assembled by producer Manfred Eicher, which brings the French-African drummer together with Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek and Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko. Two of Stanko’s gifted young associates, pianist Marcin Wasilewski and bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz, complete an ensemble which plays Manu’s music with enormous assurance, as if they’ve been playing together for years. Which, indeed, some of them have. As so often with this record label, a “first encounter” trails a network of associations and interwoven histories....

Katché loomed into public consciousness as a pop drummer in the mid-1980s, his loping, floating beat eagerly embraced by musicians from Peter Gabriel to Sting to Joni Mitchell. In 1988, Manfred Eicher heard him playing on Robbie Robertson’s untitled Geffen album and felt that his pulses and patterns, simultaneously modern and tribal, could easily be adapted to improvised contexts. In fact, Katché had already given the matter some thought. It turned out he’d been an ECM follower since his teenage years, when he was studying percussion at the Paris Conservatory, and listening to the label’s albums – particularly those of Jan Garbarek, Keith Jarrett and John Abercrombie - had helped him shape some of his own ideas concerning jazz and ensemble playing and the relationship of sound and silence.

Invited to participate in ECM’s 20th anniversary concerts in Paris in 1989, Katché jumped at the opportunity, playing first in a trio with Jan Garbarek and Indian violinist Shankar in a concert at La Cigale (the venue to which Katché returns for the launch concert for “Neighbourhood” on October 4th). Garbarek was immediately excited by Katché’s playing, which he has compared to that of the great pre-self-expression players of jazz whose goal was always and only to serve the music:

“Manu has many qualities as a player. He can do many things, but much of his playing is pattern oriented. He’s looking for just the right drum pattern to fit a piece of music and he’ll stay with that, but vary it in minimalistic ways with dynamics and attack. Rather than breaking loose to play soloistically, he maintains the ambience he’s created. I love all the old jazz drummers, like Jo Jones, for example, or Gene Krupa, and they were also more pattern oriented rather than freely expressive in the way that most contemporary jazz drummers are. And it’s something I’ve missed. Manu has that quality in his approach, but also a very elegant sophistication, a poetic sensitivity.”

In the early 1990s, Manu Katché joined the Jan Garbarek Group for several tours. He appeared on five subsequent albums with Jan: “I Took Up The Runes”, “Ragas and Sagas”, “Twelve Moons”, “Visible World”, and the 2004 release “In Praise of Dreams”.

Garbarek and Tomasz Stanko have crossed paths periodically over the decades. In the early 70s Stanko jammed with Jan’s “Triptykon” trio. At the end of the decade they both played with Edward Vesala’s large and small ensembles in Helsinki and were further reunited at a still fondly-remembered Frankfurt Festival show in a group line-up that also included Lester Bowie, Kenny Wheeler, John Abercrombie, Eddie Gomez and Jack DeJohnette. Gary Peacock’s superb “Voice From The Past – Paradigm” CD of 1981 also featured Garbarek and Stanko. Stanko marvelled then at the range of the jazz tradition that Garbarek could address on his saxophones, easily accessing the vocabularies of saxophonists from Coleman Hawkins to Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp: a “gigantic technical ability.” “We musicians, if only having such abilities, tend to display what we can do,” Stanko remarked to writer Michael Tucker, “while Jan – quite to the contrary.” Garbarek’s own discs, controlled, ruminative, tend to reflect a distillation of his musical thought. However, ECM ‘production projects’ sometimes encourage more overtly “jazz” responses from the saxophonist. Albums with Peacock, Miroslav Vitous (“Star”, “Universal Syncopations”), Kenny Wheeler (“Deer Wan”) have emphasized this aspect, so too does “Neighbourhood”, while its very title brings to mind one of Garbarek’s frequently quoted statements: “You might say I live in a spiritual neighbourhood which is scattered geographically around the world”. In this case not so very “scattered”, perhaps, given the strongly Slavic make-up of the band: Garbarek is himself half-Polish.

Stanko’s countrymen Wasilewski and Kurkiewicz have already been playing with the great trumpeter since 1994, when both were 18 years old. They appear on his widely acclaimed “Soul of Things” and “Suspended Night” CDs and have their own album, called simply “Trio” which also gathered very positive press, with JazzTimes calling it “a work of exquisitely nuanced quietude,” and Salon speaking of “the loveliest piano trio debut in years.” Young players with an ear open to the creative possibilities of pop, Wasilewski and Kurkiewicz grew up with Katché’s rhythmic innovations as part of the soundtrack of their lives, and can play very naturally with the drummer. More than this: they take his material, develop it, and help to create a musical environment in which all participants can give of their best. Kurkiewicz locks into Manu’s patterned beat, and Wasilewski plays eloquently behind sax and trumpet and takes exceptional solos of his own.

Emmanuel ‘Manu’ Katche was born in St Maur des Fossés, near Paris, in 1958, though his family roots go back to Africa’s Ivory Coast. He studied piano from the age of 5, switching to drums at 14 and studying classical percussion at the Conservatoire National Supérieure de Musique de Paris. He has often said that his drum style is essentially an amalgam of African rhythm concepts and classical drumming, illuminated by the in-the-moment interaction of jazz.

Amongst the many jazz musicians with whom Katché has played was the late pianist Michel Petrucciani, to whom “Neighbourhood” is dedicated. Their work together included, on one occasion, a performance with Jan Garbarek.