What then to make of ECM Records? The European label is a critical darling in the States, often lauded for its distinctive sound (notes are pristine, you can hear silences) and the creative vision of its chief Manfred Eicher, but to my knowledge, it's never produced an album that's anything like Coltrane's Sound. In fact, it's the rare ECM album that's anything like any music that's being played in New York's jazz clubs. The ECM sound is soft, hyper-lyrical, and subtly textured—Bill Evans without swing. New York's many sounds tend towards propulsion, no matter if it's the Bad Plus, Darius Jones, or Wynton Marsalis.
I thought about ECM's paradoxical position in America (beloved by critics but unlike anything else they praise) while listening to Manu Katché's Third Round, a pleasing wisp of an album that was released last Tuesday by the venerable label. The French drummer Katché is playing the Ottawa and Montreal jazz festivals over the next two days before arriving at the Highline Ballroom on Thursday for a one-nighter in the city. Katché has worked extensively with Peter Gabriel and Sting, so it's not surprising that Third Round has plenty of moments that sound like a mash-up of soft-rock and smooth jazz—death by light grooving—but it doesn't really make sense to analyze the album simply by pointing out that it is not a serious jazz record in the American tradition nor even an accomplished "Euro Jazz" record like the works of Enrico Rava or Tomasz Stanko.
Katché, to his credit, seems to know just what he's doing, telling Ian Patterson at All About Jazz:
I've been playing with pop artists for more than 20 years, so I'm used to their structure. The way I listen to the music and the way I approach it is very much pop—I'm just talking about the structures of my compositions. Even if it's instrumental music like jazz, I'm not a big fan on record of—which is different than on stage—having 150 bars of improvisation. I think that when you listen to a record you just go for a trip, and if the trip is too long you get bored.Only one of the 11 tracks on Third Round runs more than five minutes and many of them have surprisingly catchy melodies. After a quick browse through the music, I got the impression that Third Round was a compilation of elevator music for a yoga company's headquarters, but it's much deeper than muzak. Textures emulsify into one another on "Springtime Dancing," Katché's drumming smolders on "Out Take Number 9," and "Being Ben" has such a fine hook that I swear I've heard it before. I'm not sure I'll ever want to check out Third Round again, but I can hear the appeal: it's Easy Listening with contours. The drum and bass have shape and snap; Tore Brunborg's sax sounds breathy and immediate, not processed; and there's a consistent craftsmanship to the album that makes it, despite some soporific moments, a lush treat.
The "Keep On Trippin'" video from Third Round: