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Album Review

Drummer Manu Katche's sophomore effort for ECM is, in some ways, an extension of his nearly brilliant debut Neighbourhood, issued by the label in 2004. The former recording listed such ECM standard bearers as trumpeter Tomasz Stanko and veteran saxophonist Jan Garbarek on the front line and a rhythm section comprised of pianist Marcin Wasilewski and bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz (from Stanko's group). Playground keeps the rhythm section intact, but Mathias Eick and Trygve Seim, on trumpet and saxophones respectively, make up the front line. While there can be no denying the lyrical power of the former unit, this one feels more like a band. Seim is a leader in his own right, having released three fine recordings under his own name and been part of numerous ECM ensembles. He and Eick played together in Iro Haarla's band for the wonderful Northbound recording. The trumpeter is also an integral part of guitarist Jacob Young's group whose ECM debut, Evening Falls, was one of 2002's best jazz releases. Manfred Eicher likes to keep it in the family when he's producing, and he hasn't been wrong for a long time. This set was recorded in New York, and though it retains the trademark ECM "sound" in some ways, it's warmer, too. Separation and space abound, but the dynamic reach of this group transcends that at times.

Guitarist David Torn helps out on the opener, "Lo," and third cut "Song for Her." Interestingly, they are two of the quieter cuts on the set, and Torn's support work is largely atmospheric. The symbiotic communication between Eick and Seim is something to behold. Drummer Manu Katche's sophomore effort for ECM is, in some ways, an extension of his nearly brilliant debut Neighbourhood, issued by the label in 2004. The former recording listed such ECM standard bearers as trumpeter Tomasz Stanko and veteran saxophonist Jan Garbarek on the front line and a rhythm section comprised of pianist Marcin Wasilewski and bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicz (from Stanko's group). Playground keeps the rhythm section intact, but Mathias Eick and Trygve Seim, on trumpet and saxophones respectively, make up the front line. While there can be no denying the lyrical power of the former unit, this one feels more like a band. Seim is a leader in his own right, having released three fine recordings under his own name and been part of numerous ECM ensembles. He and Eick played together in Iro Haarla's band for the wonderful Northbound recording. The trumpeter is also an integral part of guitarist Jacob Young's group whose ECM debut, Evening Falls, was one of 2002's best jazz releases. Manfred Eicher likes to keep it in the family when he's producing, and he hasn't been wrong for a long time. This set was recorded in New York, and though it retains the trademark ECM "sound" in some ways, it's warmer, too. Separation and space abound, but the dynamic reach of this group transcends that at times.

Guitarist David Torn helps out on the opener, "Lo," and third cut "Song for Her." Interestingly, they are two of the quieter cuts on the set, and Torn's support work is largely atmospheric. The symbiotic communication between Eick and Seim is something to behold. The wonderfully tender ballad "Lo" contains the kind of restraint and reliance on gentleness that's difficult for two horn players — these days anyway — to hold together as a unit; one usually comes off sounding more dominant than the other. But Katche's pace, with so many subtle fills, and Wasilewski's bridge between the horns is sturdy and moves the melody forward allowing them to hold steady. There are numerous ballads on this set, which is unusual for a drummer, but Katche is nothing if not a lyrical composer. His subtlety is one of his great strengths — check the quietly insistent brushed hi hat trills in triple time on "Emotions." "So Groovy" is nothing if not modern-day soul-jazz. A skeletal, funky backbeat with Katche playing breaks everywhere relies heavily on Kurkiewicz's bassline to not only keep the pulse, but also to keep it moving. The head in the tune is loping but stays tight. Eick's solo simmers as Katche's percussion and kit work quietly push him even as Wasilewski fills the space with some angular but in-the-cut chords. "Morning Joy" alternates between improvisational sketch and gently swinging mid-tempo ballad. One has to wonder if the solo drumming at the beginning of "Motion" is not a sort of homage to Paul Motian, it replicates his notion of pulse and swing nearly perfectly while keeping Katche's unique snare work his own. The post-bop head in the tune would also seem to suggest that, but the tune moves over a couple of times into other territory without ever straying from that theme too much, and becomes more harmonically complex as it goes. There is also a beautiful bluesy funk element here, that never leaves the realm of controlled tension, but is so seamless it's easy to initially miss the many changes it undergoes — and there's a killer little solo by Wasilewski.

"Snapshot" is a modern-day glimpse of the classic Blue Note sound of the early to mid-'60s. The themes and solos (particularly by Seim) are modern, but the deep blues and even slightly bossa feel in the rhythms touch on that territory. Katche is at his very best here, dancing like Billy Higgins but deeper in the lower registers of his kit. Them other ballads here, such as "Project 58" and "Possible Thought" are all transformed, chameleon-like, into other things as these wonderfully airy but complex compositions shimmer, slip and slide through the ear. Katche's drumming is quiet but so knotty. He's everywhere, traveling around the band with Kurkiewicz as his foil, guiding this band through his tunes (check the terrain "Inside Games" covers from front to back). The sophisticated urban groove of "Clubbing" is one of the hippest songs Katche's written, with a rolling piano line in the lower register in the head, the drummer breaking and shifting grooves on the bell of his ride cymbal. The solos begin with Eick, and he moves form post-bop to slightly outside, never losing his sense of time or melody. Seim follows suit, but moves to the edges more quickly; his bop phrasing also goes into a kind of modalism around the blues before Wasilewski, becomes a machine, hitting arpeggios insistently and percussively as Katche answers breaking his beat all around him filling that center space. The interplay between the two men is never better than it is here and could have gone on far longer. The set closes with a variation of "Song for Her" that feels more like a reprise than anything else. The first version is so utterly beautiful it seems almost superfluous. In all, Playground is a step ahead of its predecessor; namely because Katche's compositions, while they are more complex, have lost none of their inherent lyricism. The two new front line players have brought with them the experience of playing together and this rhythm section has worked together for a while. They fold into the mix of the ensemble rather than simply standing out on their own. Playground is an exciting new chapter in Katche's evolution as a leader; but more than this, bodes well for the future of jazz: it never loses sight of itself, but moves the various threads of its subgenres further without stretching any of them to the breaking point.

Biography

Born: 26 May 1953 in Amityville, NY

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '00s

New York-based composer, multi-instrumentalist, producer, singer, writer, and self-described "texturalist/guitarist" David Torn lent his distinctive style to numerous films and documentaries and collaborations. He worked with composers Howard Shore, Carter Burwell, and Ryuichi Sakamoto, as well as appeared on recordings from k.d. lang, David Bowie, Jim Carroll, Laurie Anderson, and a host of others. His solo works include Best Laid Plans (1984), Cloud About Mercury (1986), Door X (1990), Tripping...
Full Bio
Playground, David Torn
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  • $18.99
  • Genres: Jazz, Music
  • Released: 28 September 2007

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