Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin: Stoa (ECM 1939)

Stoa

Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin
Stoa

Nik Bärtsch piano
Sha contrabass and bass clarinets
Björn Meyer bass
Kaspar Rast drums
Andi Pupato percussion
Recorded May 2005, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“The rule of Japanese martial arts is: think with your body.”
–Nik Bärtsch

With Stoa, Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin dropped into the pond of ECM—indeed, of the world—with profoundly concentric ripples. Listeners can be thankful the effects of those ripples have yet to dissipate, and can only hope decades’ worth more from this nonpareil collective awaits. Pianist Bärtsch drafted the architecture of Stoa while in Japan, the enigmatic and fiercely vivid culture of which had long been the philosophical foundation of his work, yet which remained distant to him until fortune brought him there during the rainy season of 2003.

The formula of Ronin is rooted in the “module,” a molecular prism of being through which Bärtsch’s headstrong quintet splashes light. “Modul 36” thus opens the program with the intermittent glow of a harmonic piano hit, tolling the hour with fallacies of salutation. The only things tangible in these inaugural stirrings are those lone hands at the keyboard. Divorced from body, they step even as they hold themselves against the chill. Wrists plant themselves in the first patches of soil they come to, glowing like eyes in the black ice. Their fingers stretch into branches, from which scatter the blossoms of Ronin’s melodic art proper.

More than any Ronin album since, Stoa measures its respiration in clear-cut rhythmic overlay—this courtesy of drummer Kaspar Rast and percussionist Andi Pupato—with phenomenally engaging results. The stealthy bass of Björn Meyer in “Modul 33” sets off the deepest chain reaction in this regard, followed in kind by the piano’s upper register, Rast’s careful flurry, and the popping bass clarinet of reedist Sha. Overlapping circles, squares, and triangles—each the essence of a different spiritual idea—dance in lockstep toward densities in the latter half. A solid bass line muscles through the smog with finesse. Even subtler syncopations abound in “Modul 32.” Phasing heart rates with magical depressions, it braids the air of the studio with timelessness. From planetary to nebular, its hip-rocking moves evoke the gait of a tireless nomad who has found that middle ground by which to renounce any claims to territory.

“Modul 35” is classically urban Ronin, a world of revolving doors and robotic drones, whose mouths open and close to the tune of cash registers and credit swipes. Yet hovering around these bar-coded souls is a guardian angel of repose, one that counts not tender but connections on its fingers and who speaks through Bärtsch’s own fingers in pylons of light. Microtonal lifts from Meyer add spongy evanescence. Similar contrasts abound in the finishing “Modul 38_17,” another mechanistic fantasy that cuts a line through landscape like a bullet train—which is to stay, smoothly and with barest indications of its actual speed. Winds follow, rolling like the hills in denser chord voicings here. A gorgeously minimal flavor laces the proceedings with tension, urgency growing like a beard on the face of change. Before long that sense of speed catches up with us and tousles our hair, keeping sleep at bay with the sheer energy of self-realization and pulsing through to silence, as resolute as it is fragile.

What we have, then, is not a journey, per se. Instead, a flame rejuvenating itself with every flicker. It travels down the match, edging ever closer to bare fingertips until a gasp of pain and shaking hand offer its ashen frame to the water. But its smoke trails upward yet, the final tether between flesh and firmament.

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