Manu Katche/Neighborhood

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Manu Katche is a world-class drummer who has made his mark largely in the pop music arena, playing on Peter Gabriel’s celebrated So album as well as working with Afro-Celt Sound System, Al DiMeola, Sting, and Youssou N’dour. Katchu’s only previous release as a leader was 1992’s more rock-driven It’s About Time. Since then he’s spent time working with Jan Garbarek, and now releases the excellent CD Neighbourhood, which features an amazing band consisting of Katche, pianist Marcin Wasilewski and bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz, both from Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko’s band, Stanko himself, and Garbarek on saxes. The disc is dedicated to the late French pianist Michel Petrucciani, and like Petrucciani’s work, it manages to display both fragile melodic beauty and raw, rhythmic muscle at the same time.

Stanko’s playing is absolutely shining, transcendent on ‘February Song.’ It often seems as though every non-essential thought or gesture has been weeded out of his playing here, leaving only the pure essence of his soul in his tone and playing. Stanko is a major modern trumpet voice, despite his only recently becoming established in the U.S. There’s proof of his flexibility as well, with his energetic, clipped phrases on his solo in “Lovely Walk” recalling the early worked that once got his style dubbed ‘predatory lyricism.’

Jan Garbarek has been working with Manu Katche for several CDs worth of material (including Twelve MoonsI Took Up the Runes, and the hypnotic In Praise of Dreams) and several years of touring, so it is no surprise that the two mesh well. What is amazing, though, is the way that the rhythm section of Wasilewski, Kurkiewicz, and Katche really operate as a unit, both coloring the music with shades of emotional content and driving the soloists forward. It always seems to be true that the best drummers are not necessarily those who play the most solos or are the most noticeable, but rather those who can contribute to an ensemble and raise its very musicality with their playing, and this disc provides solid evidence (if any were needed) that Katche is one of the best drummers around.

If there is an outlying factor here, it would seem to be Garbarek’s keening tenor sax sound, and he does instantly come to the fore when he plays a solo in a way that Stanko does not. Yet instead of making his playing seem out of place, it provides a new texture for the listener while still blending into the group’s overall intent. Garbarek’s work here often sounds more overtly jazzy than his recent solo work, less steeped in the broad folk music traditions that so much of his work is based on, and it is refreshing to hear him play in this context. For anyone who’s forgotten about Jan’s work with Keith Jarrett’s ‘European’ quartet, I suggest a careful listen to “Take Off and Land” from Neighbourhood.

Really, it’s amazing that the musicians here seem to hardly need to alter their normal musical voices in order to blend into the ensemble. The opening track “November 99” bristles with Wasilewski and Kurkiewicz’s pop music sensibilities, displayed on their recording (with drummer Michal Miskiewicz) Trio. “Good Influence” and “No Rush” could have appeared on one of Stanko’s recent releases, and “Number One” could be a track from a lost Garbarek release.

For its effortless blending of a group of some of today’s best European jazz musicians, its lovely compositions (all by Manu Katche), and its overall high level of musicianship, Neighbourhood stands as an early nominee for best releases of 2006.

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