Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin: Awase (ECM 2603)


Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin

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 Ronin: Llyrìa (ECM 2178)


Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin

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.


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.)