Manu Katché opened the first set of his three-night Ronnie Scott’s residency with a barely perceptible swish of cymbals and a splash from the stick end of his mallets. In the space of a few bars, the French- Ivorian drummer had called all to order, and established his mastery of textures and dynamics. For two tightly argued sets, Katché and his bass-free, pan-European quartet delivered breathy horns and funky beats, swirling textures and gentle lines that switched direction in an instant. Katché orchestrated all, each accent, beat and whiplash crack perfectly placed to support, direct and cajole.
The drummer usually visits as a high-profile accompanist – he’s been an insider’s “name-to-check” ever since appearing on Peter Gabriel’s 1986 album So and has long worked with Norwegian saxophonist Jan Garbarek – so his debut at Ronnie’s was a welcome chance to see his understated virtuosity at close quarters.
He opened with compositions from his recently released, eponymous fifth album for ECM; with their gentle contours and pristine sound, their inner fire and group ethic, they completely captured the label’s house style. Katché sounds great and has technique to spare, but only lets fly on showcase moments and endings. For the most part his nonchalantly executed rolls and crashes marked a change of pace or cued an out-of-nowhere stop, and the lasting impression is of a gifted team player leading from within.
Katché’s compositions are strong on mood, light of touch and rest on straightforward though shifting structures. Ballad fanfares switch to a samba beat, mist-wreathed sustains evaporate into lilting funk, there is modal jazz, hard-nosed swing and, in the second set, a Katché round-the-kit workout sustained by a fast, long-sustained and ankle-straining bass drum ostinato.
The two-horn front line enhanced cool tones with harmonised effects, saxophonist Tore Brunborg expanding a breathy attack and Luca Aquino singing ethereal falsetto into his trumpet mike. Both delivered focused, if not ground-breaking solos. Keyboardist Jim Watson covered bass-lines and texture – two-handed and edgy on organ, more restricted on piano – and delivered a rippling highlight with his lyrical, unaccompanied piano introduction to the encore, “Bliss”.