That French/African jazz/rock drummer Manu Katche named his third solo album Third Round might suggest this is an album showcasing a man backed up against a wall, fighting for his life—possibly about an artist giving his solo career one final battle of survival.
Or maybe he just liked the sound of it. Third Round sounds too assured, low-key, and groovy to be fraught, providing head-bopping grooves that strike the perfect balance between flash and subtlety, never trying too hard to impress with instrumental virtuosity, never dissolving into elevator music, like some albums cut from the same stylistic cloth. For those familiar with Katche’s work, there are few surprises here, but that doesn’t seem to be the point. This is a consistent, confident batch of songs, recorded with skilled, well-versed collaborators (keyboardist Jason Rebello, bassist Pino Palladino, and saxophonist Tore Bronburg), more satisfied with slowly revealing its simple pleasures than beating the listener over the head with them.
Katche isn’t a household name, but he’s worked with some—his trademark shimmering cymbals and precise style grew seamlessly into the fabric of Peter Gabriel’s majestic art rock and Sting’s limber, jazzy adult contemporary—in the case of Gabriel, becoming an essential, defining part of the sound. More or less, even if you haven’t heard of him, you’ve heard him, and just one listen through Third Round provides a nice summation of his style and chops.
Yes, Katche’s drumming is some of the most instantly recognizable on the planet, and it doesn’t take long before he makes his mark. A couple minutes into opener “Swing Piece”, Katche unfolds a dreamy quilt of cymbal splashes that is both breathtaking and quintessentially him: the definition of percussive sophistication. “Swing Piece” is top shelf, featuring the whole band on its A-game. Bronburg’s sultry saxophone and Rebello’s piano add tasteful flourishes above Palladino’s stretchy bass line, which anchors the piece.
“Keep on Trippin’” is the downright sexiest tune, evolving from a bass-y, three chord piano cycle into a funky late-night full band groove. Guest guitarist Jacob Young adds a layer of mysterious cool with his warm tones, and Palladino digs deeply into some of his tastiest fills.
Third Round knocks you out most when the band puts melody before mood. A handful of ballads in the album’s final stretch are more sleepy than sultry, particularly the lounge-y “Stay With You”, featuring Kami Lyle on vocals and trumpet. Ironically, the only vocal-based track here is by far the least lyrical, propping up corny lines like “I’ll always catch you falling stars/As they sail across the sky” where a Bronburg sax line or flurry of cymbal splashes would have done just fine.
Despite these occasional stumbles, Third Round is well worth the effort. This is a rare accomplishment: an instrumental, smooth jazz album where you can actually remember the melodies and hum them later. At the same time, it’s one where the reward outweighs the effort.
For all the collective harmony and instrumental skill on display, Manu Katche is still the star of this show. It may seem odd on paper for a drummer to release a full-band album like this one under his own moniker, but once you’ve finished Third Round, this concept feels highly appropriate.
He’s a leader behind the kit. Close your eyes, and his playing can conjure images all on its own. For me, Katche’s cymbal-heavy drumming sounds like a suave, slow-motion chandelier gracefully crashing in a crowded room. Or something like that. More succinctly, he’s still one of modern music’s most tasteful and creative percussionists, firmly holding the reins of a craft that’s all his own.