Manu Katché must be the least egotistical drummer on the planet. Although he’s rarely out of earshot on Playground, and the vision is clearly his, there’s not a moment when he hogs the spotlight. As he’s done behind pop stars Sting and Peter Gabriel, and in his jazz work with trumpeter Tomasz Stanko and saxophonist Jan Garbarek, the French-born Katché, on his second album for ECM as a leader, finds his niche, supplies what’s required and gracefully stays out of the way.
On Playground, most of the star turns go to the Norwegian hornmen, Trygve Seim on tenor and soprano saxophones and trumpeter Mathias Eick, and to the Polish pianist, Marcin Wasilewski. But they too keep things in check, and Playground, despite brief flashes of intensity, often teeters toward the smooth-jazz chasm—it never quite falls in, but it comes awfully close. Katché proves a firm believer in, and judicious user of, quietude and roominess: On the ballads, which comprise most of the set, Seim and Eick lay out the harmonic path, the mostly subdued Wasilewski provides the chordal foundations and light fills, and the Polish double-bassist Slawomir Kurkiewicsz unobtrusively bolts it all down. Guitarist David Torn appears on two tracks but is barely noticeable.
All along, Katché puts in timekeeper duty, generously tossing out a cymbal crash here and a snappy snare or hi-hat accent there. Not until “Clubbing,” the album’s penultimate track, does the band shift into high gear. Driven by a pumped-up bassline, Katché kicks up heavy dust, the horns engage in their most aggressive riffing on the disc—even though Seim can’t quite bring himself to squeak—and Wasilewski turns in his most imaginative solo. It makes you wish they’d have fired up more often, just for some balance, as it’s all become rather samey by then. Cozily endearing in a late-night-mood sort of way, but samey.