CD reviews

CD REVIEW: Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin – Awase

Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin – Awase
(ECM 673 5867. CD review by Brian Marley)

“So,” said my friend, “what kind of music is this?” Good question. Of minimalist tendencies, but a hell of a lot more funky and slinky than the stiff metronomics of Philip Glass and Steve Reich, it even sounds somewhat jazzy at times, although, apart from a section in the wistful Modul 60 which features a free-flowing, expressive alto saxophone solo from Sha (aka Stefan Haslebacher), it is hard to tell whether there is any improvisation.

Even that solo in Modul 60 could be fully composed. Nik Bärtsch builds up his compositions organically, out of simple motifs that gradually accrue layers of material until a high level of melodic and rhythmic complexity is reached. Odd bedfellows they may seem, but The Necks do something similar to Bärtsch, although, of course, their ends are achieved purely by improvisational means.

Simply put, Awase means the blending of things, and that’s a good description of how Ronin functions. It’s a tight-knit unit, collectively strong, so much so that at times I stopped noticing which instrument was doing what and just listened to the music as a thing in itself.

As well as Sha (alto sax, bass clarinet), Bärtsch (piano) is joined by drummer Kaspar Rast and new recruit, bassist Thomy Jordi. The lengthy Modul 58, with its busy, highly propulsive rhythmic underpinnings, and textural thickening and thinning as instruments drop in and out of the mix, is a tour de force. If it can be said to have a principal theme (there are several to choose from), it’s the one stated in the 11th minute, then reiterated and developed in the 15th. Constant development even when material is reiterated is a key feature of this music.

Bärtsch runs two groups in parallel, Ronin (electric instruments only) and Mobile (all acoustic), with musicians in common, but their aims are slightly different and the compositions change accordingly. For example, the version of Modul 60 on Mobile’s Continuum (ECM, 2016), fleshed out with a small string section, is identifiably the same composition as the one on Awase but with different facets revealed.

Despite Bärtsch’s immemorable titles (apart from one excellent piece by Sha, all are numbered Moduls), the compositions have tons of character. They’re atmospheric, propulsive and often dazzling displays of rigour and group interplay.

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