Manfred Eicher’s production technique and musical taste have contributed to many brilliant records. My theory is that Mr. Eicher’s somewhat arid aesthetic works wonders with more unruly musicians. The combination of anarchy and precision builds a certain tension into these records from the start. On other sessions, however, the artist may not rub against the ECM sound enough, and the result is a disc that is just too nice.
Neighborhood is one of those too-nice albums.
The quintet assembled for this recording looks like a pure winner. Jan Garbarek (saxophones) and Tomasz Stanko (trumpet) are the front line—ECM royalty. Two superb young players from Mr. Stanko’s group (Marcin Wasilewski on piano and Slawomir Kurkiewicz on bass) join the leader’s drums. But who is Manu Katche, anyway?
Manu Katche is a French-African drummer who started popping up on the better pop albums of the mid-1980s: Peter Gabriel’s So and Sting’s Nothing Like the Sun among many others by the likes of Dire Straits, Joni Mitchell, and Tori Amos. More recently, he started playing in Jan Garbarek’s quartet, bringing him to the ear of jazz listeners. This is his ECM and jazz debut, featuring ten Katche compositions.
Here are some of the titles: “Lullaby”, “February Sun”, “No Rush”, “Lovely Walk”, and “Rose”. This will give you an excellent idea of the tone of this record. It is contemplative or even placid. It has that “ECM sound”, of course, put to the task of making these slow, hypnotic songs even more glassy and spare. You can’t judge a book its cover, so “No Rush” is a tight little funk number that gives Mr. Stanko the chance to squeeze out some tasty blues playing over a slap-happy rhythm section. Mostly, though, this record delivers what the titles suggest—moody acoustic jazz played at the highest level. But it’s still a touch of a snoozefest.
It’s hard to fault the players. Mr. Garbarek, in particular, is pungent and expressive—if anything somewhat warmer and more human than in most recent recordings of his own. On “Number One”, his cries develop some rasp and he floats atop the rhythmic groove. But he is the only splash of color on a beige canvas. On “Good Influence” Mr. Garbarek is similarly wonderful. But his statements throughout the record are brief. As Mr. Wasilewski’s piano arises from that solo, the air goes out of the material.
Tomasz Stanko is cheated the most by this record. His own work (on ECM, I hasten to note) is beautiful but daring. His trumpet statements have some lonely Boy On A Distant Shore Davis-ness about them, yet they are also harmonically bold or rhythmically aggressive. Here, the settings don’t allow Mr. Stanko much leeway to shout or declaim. He is “reduced” to playing pretty, and his bandmates in the rhythm section seem similarly robbed of their usual repertoire of fancy footwork. What they play is very nice but just too nice.
What Mr, Katche and his record do best is set up a seductive groove. “Take Off and Land” is the best example. The drum pattern is really the melody of this tune—an off-kilter funk pattern that accepts a sharp little horn line of three quick double-stabs. The soloists can play over it easily, but the groove is still the point. It is exactly the kind of thing that would make a pop record GO, and it works here too. The more conventionally “jazz” material such as “Miles Away” (a Davis tribute based on the 6/4 feeling and bass-line of “All Blues”) doesn’t have the same special feeling. It’s fine but hardly worth the gathering of talent Mr. Eicher pulled off for this recording.
When you have friends over for brunch, this would be great music to put on. Your mother-in-law will have no objections and neither will you if what you’re looking for is something exceedingly pleasant and easy to digest. But the best contemplative jazz can be challenging and beautiful at the same time. This record is mostly just very very pretty. On the last track, “Rose”, the whole band but for the piano drops out, and Mr. Wasilewski is left alone to have his Keith Jarrett moment. It sounds great, but it sounds like just a moment’s glimpse of some other terrific music you’ve already heard. Much too soon, the band comes back in and all risk is reserved again.
Neighborhood is a fine place to stroll. It is suburban lawns and no crime with too many houses looking basically the same. But even with a Scandanavian tenor player, a Polish trumpeter, and a French-African drummer, I think you’ll yearn for more diversity.
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