June. Monday night. Inside the New Morning, the atmosphere is special: the faithful are here — all connoisseurs — and you can feel it. As soon as Manu Katché launches into his concert — with the snap of a snare, a rumble on the toms — you can sense this is going to be some journey and he's not holding back. His bass-drum thuds with authority, punctuated by flashing cymbals, and his sticks fly into the air before they drop softly: right from the start, they express the elegant dynamics which have come to characterize his style. They're his signature now. Beneath his beige cap, a broad grin lights up his immense desire to play. There's something in the air: an exceptional moment is coming.
The quartet present on stage played some 130 concerts last year, which gives it impressive cohesion; the sound is superbly solid, sweeping all before it. Braced by layers of Hammond organ from the subtle Jim Watson, trumpeter Luca Aquino — now standing in for the excellent Nils Petter Molvaer — takes flight. Inside his percussive tone threads the same, velvet lyricism dispensed by Paolo Fresu, one of his former teachers. The twin voices of Tore Brunborg, tenor and soprano saxophones close to Jan Garbarek, conduct a perfect dialogue with the elegant arabesques from the trumpet. Jim Watson, whose heavy responsibility is to provide all the bass parts with his Hammond B3, shows himself to be just as inspired as when behind a grand piano. His rare solos are compact, stripped to the essentials, and far from any hollow virtuosity: they bring welcome breathing-space.
The skilled mix of discreet, electronic contributions with a dominant, acoustic sound constitutes one of this group's major strengths. Listening carefully, you notice that these musicians cleverly mix an extreme rigour into their creative liberties in order that everything will remain possible. It's obvious that they listen to each other attentively: they show respect for each other, never seeking to assert themselves, even less gain the upper hand.
To introduce the title “Loving You”, Manu steps out from behind the drums to sit down at the piano. It's an unaccustomed role which fits him like a glove; and it also reminds us that he belongs to the extremely tight circle of drummer-leaders who also compose the tunes they play.
Later, during a short break, Manu steps up to the microphone to thank the audience for coming to the gig. Closeness, again, even complicity, and always respect. Manu would also like to apologize for any inconvenience caused by the technical crew busy in the room because tonight, the concert is being filmed and recorded. The live capture of the proceedings will give birth to the group's next "live" album. This is a quartet which shows an impressive mastery over atmospheric changes: they're just as much at ease in a minimalist climate as they are when muscling their way through a piece bordering on funk with an edgy, jittery bass-synth line (like "Keep On Trippin’" or "Beats & Bounce").
Inside the room, the ambiance is now totally electric. Several encores later, the audience still hasn't had enough. Manu thanks the audience warmly again, treating them like friends in drily confessing that, "We wouldn't have had nearly as much pleasure playing the same things in front of empty seats." Amplifying the palpable intensity of that exchange, Manu encourages the audience to sing, persuading those present in this legendary club that here, tonight, they can do even better than a roomful of Americans. He's quite shrewd: he easily gets them to pick up — in unison — the short motif of an old title called "Snapshot", and their communion is total. Thanks to those few notes chanted together, the sense of sharing felt by musicians and audience alike turns into something physical, and the separation between the room and the group disappears. With the concert over, in the midst of the crowd on their (regretful) way out of the New Morning, one can feel that the magic of this genuinely special night will take a long time to evaporate. So much the better, for everyone.