Few attitudes speak to a person’s intelligence more clearly than his or her awareness of their own limitations. Even a cursory listen to French-African drummer and composer Manu Katché’s work-be it his three previous albums as a leader or, say, his playing with Peter Gabriel-suggests a smart approach to sound and music making. A quote in his publicity material confirms it: “If you write all your own music, you’re aware of your limitations,” he says. “It helps to have a changing cast of musicians, because they naturally bring in things you wouldn’t have expected. It’s really been the idea since the first album [2005’s Neighbourhood] to keep on changing the band.”
And so, for this self-titled release, Katché called on Nils Petter Molvær, trumpet and loops; Tore Brunborg, tenor and soprano saxophones (the one remaining member from the previous recording); and Jim Watson, Hammond B3 and piano.
The result, as it turns out, is smart pop-jazz. Mostly set at a medium tempo, the pieces are lyrical and elegantly constructed. The melodies, mostly presented in unisons, have a vocal quality. It’s hardly a leap to imagine tracks such as “Imprint,” “Loving You” or “Bliss” as sophisticated pop songs with lyrics. In “Loose,” the melody has a nursery-rhyme feel that cleverly sets up a sharp contrast with the improvisations that follow. Throughout, the lack of a bass holding down the music, and Katché’s shifting approach, creates a feeling of weightlessness. The overall sound is spacious and lush. (Molvær’s electronics and bite are used sparingly here.) Still, there is grit in the funk of “Beats & Bounce” and “Walking by Your Side,” while “Short Ride” comes closest to straightahead jazz.