Review: Manu Katché at Montreux

It’s impossible not to like Manu Katché. On stage the French-Ivorian drummer is all smiles, clowning around with bassist Richard Bona and joking with the audience. He reduces the Swiss radio presenters to fits of giggles in his pre-concert interview and talks about his love for both jazz and rock with such unrestrained enthusiasm you can’t help but be charmed. Yet it’s eminently possible to dislike his music; not because it’s challenging but precisely because it isn’t.

With the exception of November ‘99, a track from Katché’s 2005 album Neighbourhood with a brooding bass pedal, the drummer’s set of originals was too smooth not to stick in the throat – dominated by sugary, predictable melodies and bland jazz-rock grooves.

Italian saxophonist Stefano Di Battista’s high-energy lines provided some exciting moments and Bona impressed with a brace of vocal features in which he layered up harmonies and tessellating riffs with his loop pedal that enchanted the Swiss crowd. But for the most part the quartet (completed by Belgian keys player Eric Legnini) couldn’t compensate for the repertoire.

Katché in particular failed to thrill and seemed content to sit back, contributing soft rolls, rim clicks and shimmering splash cymbal embellishments but declining to firmly assert himself in the music. Towards the end of the set, when he did finally open up, it was far from stellar. His ideas were pleasant enough but, as a whole, the feature sounded disjointed and uncomfortable. The same was true of some call-and-answer work with Di Battista in which the saxophonist was both the star and the driving force.

In addition to releasing several albums of jazz originals, including three on the ECM label, Katché has spent years on the road with Sting and Peter Gabriel and has worked as a sideman for everyone from Joan Armatrading to the Eurythmics. While a background of that kind needn’t be a problem when it comes to playing jazz, it might explain the drummer’s difficulty when it comes to stretching out. That, and his penchant for cheese.

Katché’s charisma and beguiling “niceness” make his interviews a joy to watch. It’s just unfortunate that his music is “nice” too – perfectly pleasant to listen to, but far from thrilling.

Photo: 2014 FFJM – Daniel Balmat

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