Nik Bärtsch’s Mobile – Continuum
(ECM 1450186232. CD Review by John L. Walters)
Nic Bärtsch’s composition titles and album covers have an austerity that belie the warmth and energy of his music. Each title starts with the word ‘Modul’ followed by a number, which means that tracks such as Modul 4 (from his latest album) and Modul 38_17 (from Stoa, 2005) look more like file names for university research or a secret report. They reminded me of Cindy Sherman’s repeated use of the word ‘Untitled’. Bärtsch’s tunes are difficult to chat about in the pub: ‘Have you heard Modul 44. Amazing.’ ‘Ah, but you have to hear Modul 38_17!’ At glance, his album covers could be blurry surveillance pictures, or specimens from a lab. Fortunately his music, evolving over the past decade with the help of loyal, expertly precise sidemen, sounds and feels entirely human.
It may be that Bärtsch’s creative process has the rigour of experiments, with the raw materials of his music subjected to a series of rational processes before his outcomes are recorded and labelled. Or maybe the titles are an extended, dry joke. Continuum, his latest album, is richly detailed, varied and absorbing, and made with two line-ups: five tracks recorded by a quartet with drums and percussion (Kaspar Rast and Nicolas Stocker), bass clarinet (Sha) and the leader’s piano; and three more in which the four musicians are augmented (or ‘extended’) by a string quintet.
There’s a movie-like stillness, a broad calm in the soundscape that distinguishes Bärtsch’s writing and piano playing. Yet even his most meditative music is never still, and tracks such as Modul 4 could be said to rock like crazy. Albeit in a kind of reserved, Swiss manner. I was going to compare Bärtsch to Esbjörn Svensson, now that the massive EST-shaped gap in the jazz cosmos is being filled by newer kids on the block, but Bärtsch and his groups Ronin and Mobile, with few personnel changes in the past decade or so, have always been on a different plane: nothing like US jazz and somewhat different to most other European groups.
Continuum’s production and engineering is transparent: you hear the overtones in the piano and percussion with great clarity. Sha’s bass clarinet and the strings are knitted into the sound tapestry with skill and care. On a scale of 1 to 11, Continuum stays scrupulously between 3 and 8.
Modul 29_14 is a thrilling opener, creating tension through a series of motifs for piano and glockenspiel, stacked against chattering drums and percussion. The absence of bass in the new line-up leaves a space through which super-clean keyboards and cymbals radiate. The fact that the bass parts are shared by bass clarinet and piano left hand make the music’s debt to systems music – and indeed other forms of contemporary classical music – more obvious. However there’s a rocky, or prog-rock element in Bärtsch’s charts. In Steve Reich’s music, for example, the groove often derives from specific performers as much as the notes on the page. The second track, the slow, spare Modul 12, in which one drummer uses brushes while the other plays a deep bass drum, may be minimalist, but it is a jazz-infused minimalism.
Modul 18, which features the extended ensemble, has a majestic stomp, with bowed harmonics on both percussion and strings. It inhabits a cavernous acoustic that put me in mind of both Peter Gabriel and Arvo Pärt. You could call it cinematic, but few directors would let a scene unfold over such a long time.
Bärtsch selects his rhythms with great care. Modul 5 incorporates a fast, hocketing ‘morse code’ style rhythm, while Modul 60, extended by the string quintet, maintains a sinuous 5/4 that has a hint of Simon Jeffes’ early Penguin Cafe Orchestra. At the very least, this is superior BBC4 documentary underscoring (for when their music supervisors tire of the Gotan Project). Modul 4 is an infectious rocker, with honking bass clarinet and a relentless backbeat.
Modul 44, featuring the strings, is a new, slower version of the final track from Holon (2007, by Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin), set in a spacious 6/4. The slow-building finale reverts to the 4/4 of the original version. The final track, Modul 8_11, starts with plucked piano strings and works up to into a cerebral 7/8 riff that is nevertheless reminiscent of Dizzy Gillespie’s Salt Peanuts.
Bärtsch’s music is always urgent but never in a hurry, and his sidemen follow the leader’s calm self-discipline. What improvisation there is takes place within the broad structures of the compositions – Mobile may not be a ‘blowing’ band in the jazz sense of the word, but it interprets the music as if it were.