Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin: Awase (ECM 2603)

Awase

Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin
Awase

Nik Bärtsch piano
Sha bass clarinet, alto saxophone
Thomy Jordi bass
Kaspar Rast drums
Recorded October 2017, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: May 4, 2018

The booklet for Awase, Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch’s latest release with his band of Ronin, quotes French theorist Roland Barthes: “The sign is a fracture which only ever opens onto the face of another sign.” Perhaps no other statement better expresses the fractal nature of this music, for the more one zooms in on its precisions, the more one senses its freedoms expand. Joined by Sha (bass clarinet and alto saxophone), Kaspar Rast (drums) and newest recruit Thomy Jordi (bass), Bärtsch finds himself rooted in a familiar ethos while sprouting new verdure.

The album continues his “modular” approach, by which larger bodies coalesce from elemental forces. The newest of these, “Modul 60” and “Modul 59,” open and close the album with hints of a concentrated future. Where the latter emotes in liminal territory, the former is a direct link to Continuum, Bärtsch’s previous record for ECM with his Mobile project. Any nods to the past, however, are refracted through a brighter coming of age: a sound that once ran now leaps. The ritual groove of “Modul 58,” for instance, is at once what we might expect and a fresher take on group integration, a taste of perpetual motion shown in the band’s willingness to let details express themselves to the level of ecstasy. “Modul 36” reveals the deepest change; known to any longtime listener of Bärtsch, here it takes on the uniformly colored properties that would seem to extend the band’s evolutionary path. It’s a classic yet forward-thinking groove, one that feels like a childhood home renovated from the inside out. “Modul 34” is another early tune, only now making its studio debut. There’s an almost digital quality to it, nuanced by human touch.

Awase is also a departure for including a non-Bärtsch original by Sha: the enigmatically titled “A.” Gradually building an ocean out of a water droplet, its waves flow to the magnetic suggestions of an itinerant philosophical compass. Like the album as a whole, it toes the line between light and shadow with every intention of shedding its ego to both along (and by) the way.

(This article originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of The New York City Jazz Record, a full PDF of which is available here.)

Nik Bärtsch’s Mobile: Continuum (ECM 2464)

Continuum

Nik Bärtsch’s Mobile
Continuum

NIK BÄRTSCH’S MOBILE
Nik Bärtsch
piano
Sha bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet
Kaspar Rast drums, percussion
Nicolas Stocker drums, tuned percussion
EXTENDED
Etienne Abelin violin
Ola Sendecki violin
David Schnee viola
Solme Hong cello
Ambrosius Huber cello
Recorded March 2015, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher
U.S. release date: April 22, 2016

Swiss pianist and bandleader Nik Bärtsch makes no distinction between the old and the new, thriving instead on constant transformation. Freed of evocative titles, he writes in so-called “modules,” each of which combines through-composed and improvised material. This approach has yielded a series of albums for ECM under the name Ronin, but on Continuum he debuts his parallel ensemble, Mobile. Drummer Kaspar Rast and mononymous clarinetist Sha are familiar standbys, while percussionist Nicolas Stocker and a string section are the new recruits. Those familiar with Ronin will recognize certain tics in Mobile’s larger body. I ask Bärtsch to elaborate on their differences.

NB

“Mobile is acoustic and Ronin amplified, resulting in different consequences concerning power, pressure, volume, and listening behavior (for musicians and audience alike). We recorded Continuum in close proximity with each other while the Ronin sessions had us in different rooms. Mobile is also a music ritual group and often plays long concerts of several hours or even days. In Mobile we include rhythmic strategies of contemporary classical music, for example in ‘Modul 5.’ The band’s name refers to a ‘perpetuum mobile,’ while Ronin is a ‘groove generator.’ Mobile creates groove equilibriums and orchestral maneuvers while Ronin attacks with a paradoxical mix of empty meditative roughness and strong rhythmic energy: Zen-funk.”

The ritual foundations of said “Modul 5” reveal the virtuosity of their execution with patience. The same holds true for “Modul 60,” in which strings interlock with their surroundings like stairways in an Escher lithograph.

On Continuum, Bärtsch has taken his craft one step closer to an ideal that, while perhaps unreachable, is more audible than ever. Beyond my own idiosyncratic impressions, however, the music of Mobile is rooted in the presence of its musicians, as anyone who has seen them live can attest. Movement would seem to be central to “Modul 29_14” in particular, a force of suggestion made by its pairing with martial arts in a promotional video:

The binary relationship between Rast and Stocker in this piece unpacks bits of code into full-blown programs. High notes in the glockenspiel, doubling those of the keyboard, activate those programs in one artful sequence after another. Bärtsch, for his part, is careful to keep his own perceptions grounded the physical body. “A musical pattern, rhythm, or resonating structure is a sensual movement,” he says. “Sometimes, when I am practicing intensively, I dream of becoming such a musical being: a pure resonating energy of movement. We are all dancers in the universe.”

And is this dancing indicative of the project’s classical leanings?

“The music might seem more ‘classical,’ since we give the impression of a chamber ensemble. In principle we work the same way as with Ronin: I compose a piece, which in the context of the group develops its own instrumentation and dynamics. But in one respect your reception is probably correct: there is less obvious improvisation than in Ronin, although ‘Modul 12’ is completely improvised, if on the basis of a modular, coherent structure.”

That latter module is remarkable for Rast’s brushwork, by which he smooths out a layer of gravel over Sha’s tunneling contrabass clarinet.

Mobile

While most comfortable on the live stage, in this instance Mobile is uniquely bound to studio parameters. This does not, clarifies Bärtsch, equate to a reduction. “An album is a different genre altogether,” he notes. “It has and creates its own rules. But the group profits from the long-playing rituals, which leave us open to the situation of the recording: a new space-time continuum to be explored and created.”

To my ears, “Modul 18” is a well-rounded example of this brand of creationism. Its elements—metal, wood, air—come to life in a vibrational field of bowed strings against a repeating bass drum, Stocker shining like a constellation in its darker sky. Throughout “Modul 4,” too, the two drummers act as one as a high overlay of notes from Bärtsch foreshadows closure. Listening to such older modules, I can’t help but wonder how they’ve changed. Are they seeds for cultivation or do they become unique entities with every iteration?

“The modular way of composing allows a piece to evolve, while also retaining compositional coherence. The triangle of composition, improvisation, and interpretation should be connected and alive. Usually a pattern, piece, or musical strategy has more potential than you first recognize. You have to explore it for years through playing and observation. I see this as a natural, spiraling development forward into roots.”

Such is the modus operandi of “Modul 44,” in which Rast’s skins serve as palimpsests for musical poetry. The subtlety of his drumming is unexpected from such a robust figure. As in the gradual progressions of “Modul 8_11,” his interaction with the others results in so many orbits that the after-images of their playing form one glowing sphere. Despite the utter precision required to pull off this effect, a free-flowing, interdimensional quality prevails. If any message stays behind, it is Bärtsch’s own: “Trust your ears. They are the most sensitive antennas for the resonating inner and outer world.”

Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin: Holon (ECM 2049)

Holon

Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin
Holon

Nik Bärtsch piano
Sha bass clarinets, alto saxophone
Björn Meyer bass
Kaspar Rast drums
Andi Pupato percussion
Recorded July 2007, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineer: Gérard de Haro
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“A band should mature into an integral organism—then it is alive, like an animal, a biotope, an urban space.”
–Nik Bärtsch

With the release of its ECM debut, Stoa, Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin hit the air flying with its meticulous brand of Zen-funk. Two years and eons of experience later, we have Holon, the title of which reveals the band’s underlying ethos: that which is simultaneously part and whole. The beats of this sophomore studio effort are no less regular than those of their predecessor, but now there is something more unitary and, as Bärtsch himself observes above, downright biological going on. Such wording is no mere metaphor, but a lived reality helped along by the decidedly acoustic mix (only Björn Meyer’s bass is plugged), as well as by the fearless integration the group has honed over countless hours of playing as one.

“Modul 42” is where Ronin’s openness comes most explicitly into play. It is an aural body built around contrasting elements. Sparkle and shadow, peace and unrest, freshness and decay—all of these intermingle in recurring dreams, inflected slightly differently with each repetition. Here and elsewhere on the album, Bärtsch’s contact inside the piano reveals a percussive, resonant core less obvious in previous recordings: a staple of his performance style since.

“Modul 41_17” is the first of two transfusions, this one offsetting the same earlier Modul 17 that was dovetailed with 38 on Stoa. Set atop a spinning plate of two notes, Meyer’s contemplative spirals join with others in the fray, cohering into a veritable golem of groove. One can almost feel the platelets conjoining in renewed life as the elements shift and sway to the pulse of some physiological alterity, which marks by its upward chromatic swings the flexion of something divinely ordered. Bärtsch’s dampened finger tapping looses sonic sponges, which soak up all the surrounding water until nothing is left. The second pairing, “Modul 39_8,” is among Bärtsch’s most enchanting. A delicate chemical infusion, it strikes the ether as if it were a matchbook.

“Modul 46” is a blush of autumnal nostalgia that proceeds by delicate propulsions. From the enchanting pianism to the underlay of rhythmatists Kaspar Rast and Andi Pupato, Meyer’s rounded spine and reedist Sha’s tender pocket, this especially jazzy module builds to a luminescent peak.

Rhythmic stacking continues to be a leitmotif of Bärtsch’s vocabulary, and the corridors of “Modul 45” are noteworthy in this regard. Anchored by a rubbery bass and smoothed by interplay between piano and saxophone, it slows into utter transcendence, balancing the piano’s reflective highs with Meyer’s twangs of reconciliation before opening into a stretch of desert music. Sha’s yodeling saxophone cleaves the night with rifts of ebony, while Bärtsch’s solo epilogue reveals nakedness beneath an outer skin.

“Modul 44” tells the story of the former’s slumber, not a dream but a sleepwalk through vestiges of time and space. This is a skeletal creation, a constellation that maps an intergalactic railroad ridden by remnants of ethers whose tickets have yet to be punched.

Call the music of Ronin whatever you will. I call it a jamming of dark matter that abides by its own string theory, and which through self-absorption finds an alternate identity waiting in the wings. One flap, and its echo is felt galaxies away.

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.

Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin: Llyrìa (ECM 2178)

Llyrìa

Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin
Llyrìa

Nik Bärtsch piano
Sha alto saxophone, bass clarinet
Björn Meyer bass
Kaspar Rast drums
Andi Pupato percussion
Recorded March 2010, Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Nicolas Baillard
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Sometimes philosophies are not written but sounded. Nik Bärtsch and his renegade Ronin quintet demonstrate an assemblage of both. In taking the art of jazz to such internal heights, the Swiss pianist and band mates Sha (reeds), Björn Meyer (bass), Kaspar Rast (drums), and Andi Pupato (percussion) autopsy the body of the score and turn it into a netted form of improvisation: with each element carefully measured and weighed, one cell osmoses into the next. Thus are Bärtsch’s numbered “Moduls” nurtured through understated rhythms and potent denouements. This third album for ECM establishes new precedent in Ronin’s ongoing development, working seedlings into a softer mush.

Ronin

Cycles of extro- and introversion are ingrained into every motive. And while their overall structure has loosed its seams in comparison to past efforts, the spaces within it allow wider avenues of un-driven soil. The modular approach still applies, now more germinative than prescriptive. The contrapuntal flavors of “Modul 48” between reed and keys draw moods with parallel lines, while the walking bass adds nostalgic perpendiculars, holding each tick of the metronome like a gumdrop on the tongue and letting it dissolve just a little bit before biting into its sweetness. Subliminal reed work diagrams a dance that is too old to be forgotten yet too new to be remembered. The subtle crosshatching that marks every tune is particularly apparent in “Modul 52.” In this more playful piece, the interactivity that Bärtsch shared with Sha in the previous track now grafts onto Meyer in similar fashion. Threading the needle with neon, peaks shine all the more against whispering strings and other delicate infusions.

Llyrìa is a marked departure, for while it still lays into the hipness that brought the band to such prominent attention, there’s an almost quantifiable level of development and maturity, especially in “Modul 55,” of which drums and bass mark the passage of time with affectionate, cinematic quality. “Modul 47” embodies another transformation, for while most carry over briefly into sparkling fulcrums, here the fulcrum becomes the introductory drop and poises us immediately at the lip of a melodic abyss, which rather than staring back at us listens back at us, gauging our reactions in real time and pressing our faces into the illusions we so dearly know. With a propulsive grace, the group flowers forth in “Modul 53” with a gentle, sauntering gravity that lets go until all that’s left is suspension. A remainder of balladic energy seeps into “Modul 51” with darkened edges. Things take a more propulsive turn a third of the way through and betray new percussive synapses at every turn. “Modul 49_44” ends the set with a redux of Holon’s Model 44. Its contrast of density and sparseness works a veiled magic with light intact, despite its reliance on shadows.

In case you’re wondering, the album’s title refers to a bioluminescent deep-sea creature that has so far defied biological classification, but which nevertheless thrives on currents dark and far from our ken. Like Ronin’s moniker, it is masterless and carves its own path of dedication beyond death. Although the pieces are for the most part precisely notated under Bärtsch’s pen, here they take on aquatic lives of their own. The slightest twitch blossoms from within each instrument, making for a picturesque flip of the postmodern tail. With such soulful and intimate chaos reigned in by shifts of regularity, the tessellation can do naught but sing.

(To hear samples of Llyrìa, click here.)