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Nik Bartsch’s Ronin - Awase Rating: 4 out of 5 Singularly original music that is superbly played and produced. Bartsch has developed a strand of music that is undoubtedly his own.

Nik Bartsch’s Ronin

“Awase”

(ECM Records ECM 2603)

Nik Bartsch, born 1971, is a Swiss pianist and composer based in Zurich. He studied piano and clarinet as a child before concentrating on linguistics, philosophy and musicology during his time at a student at Zurich University.

Strongly influenced by minimalist and avant garde composers such as Steve Reich, John Cage and Morton Feldman Bartsch formed his first group, Mobile, in 2001, releasing the album “Ritual Groove Music” on the Tonus Music record label, the first of six recordings for the Bern based company.

In 2006 Bartsch signed to the prestigious Munich based label ECM which increased his profile considerably and transformed him into a significant presence on the international jazz scene. “Awase” is his sixth album for the label and represents a continuation of the unique musical path he has been exploring since 2001.

Bartsch’s music operates at the interface of jazz and contemporary classical music with minimalism a clearly discernible influence. The title of that first album, “Ritual Groove Music”, is both highly descriptive, and something of a mission statement. There’s a strong air of spirituality about Bartsch’s music, which has sometimes been described as “Zen Funk”. His compositions evolve slowly and organically, making use of recurring, but subtly mutating, grooves and motifs. Nothing is rushed, giving the music a meditative quality that many listeners find to be strangely beautiful.

Bartsch’s main creative outlets are the groups Ronin and Mobile, the two outfits representing different ways of interpreting Bartsch’s compositions. Ronin is the “Zen Funk” outlet and currently features the enigmatically named Sha (born Stefan Haselbacher) on alto sax and clarinet, Thomy Jordi on four string electric bass guitar and the long serving Kaspar Rast, who has worked with Bartsch since the début, on drums. Previous members of the group, hitherto a five piece, have included Bjorn Meyer on electric six string bass and Andy Pupato on percussion.

Meanwhile Mobile is a wholly acoustic unit that currently includes Sha and Rast plus percussionist Nicolas Stocker. The group sometimes operates as Mobile Extended with the addition of a string quintet featuring two cellos. As the shared personnel might suggest there are many similarities between Ronin and Mobile with several of Bartsch’s pieces being interpreted by both groups. Indeed Bartsch himself has said;
“We’ve always taken the position that the compositions can be played by both groups-Mobile or Ronin- to bring out different aspects of the music”.
Some pieces have been recorded by both groups, as is the case with some of the items on this recording.

Bartsch’s “modular” approach to music is reflected in his titles, each piece is a “Modul” with its own specific number. This ascetic, intellectual, purely functional approach to tune titling is designed to focus the listener’s attention on the structure and spirituality of the music with the composer eschewing descriptive titles that might affect the interpretation of the music, presumably by both his fellow players and his listeners.

Meanwhile the album title “Awase” is a term derived from the martial art of Aikido and means “moving together”, an apt description of Ronin’s collective ethos.

Now, I’ll admit to not always quite “getting” Nik Bartsch. I’ve heard some of his earlier albums and found them a little too repetitive for my tastes, although there’s no denying that he has developed a unique and very personal sound.

However a brief solo piano performance from the man at Union Chapel, Islington as part of the 2018 EFG London Jazz Festival was utterly compelling and has forced me to look at Bartch’s music with a fresh eye and to listen with a more open ear. My account of that London performance can be read as part of my Festival coverage here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/features/article/efg-london-jazz-festival-saturday-november-18th-2017/

Turning now to the new album which commences with “Modul 60”, a piece previously recorded by the Mobile Extended ensemble on the 2015 album “Continuum”. The composer says of the piece;
“When we did ‘60’ with Mobile I was hearing it in a very chamber music way and it radiated a sort of bitter-sweet atmosphere. With Ronin it has a sparseness, an emptiness and a roughness that I really like. In the studio Manfred (Eicher,  label boss and producer) and I had the idea that it would be nice to play it as a sort of ‘quote’ bringing the story forward from ‘Continuum’. So this new version starts around the middle of the composition”.
At a little over five minutes in length the piece is a good, and eminently accessible, introduction to the Ronin sound. It develops out of Bartsch’s almost subliminal interior piano scrapings and economical chording to embrace the softly plaintive cry of Sha’s alto sax as Rast adds atmospheric, and occasionally dramatic, percussion.

At over eighteen minutes in length “Modul 58” is the album’s ‘magnum opus’.  Bartsch explains that “In Ronin terms it’s built upon a simple pattern cycle, just five against seven, and the same motif even, but it created such an interesting form”. He also mentions the influence of the tribal music styles that he and the group admire and describes the piece as “a kind of metric mantra which keeps loading itself up until we get to the more open part. You can hear, almost ironically, the simplicity of the two rhythms but you cannot match them at the same time. In its direction and its energy this piece still feels new to me, although there is something about it that seems archaic.”
The first section continues the meditative mood established by the opening “Modul 60” as the sounds of Bartsch’s dampened piano strings – his work ‘under the lid’ is consistently atmospheric and inventive – combine with Rast’s percussion shadings and the whispering and keening of Sha’s alto. The piece then gathers momentum in the second section with the propulsive interlocking generated by piano, electric bass, bass clarinet and drums grooves showing just where that “Zen Funk” label came from; at times the rhythms are almost reminiscent of those generated by contemporary electronic dance music. The momentum is punctuated by shorter, quieter passages and instruments drop in and out of the mix – there’s a stunning passage of unaccompanied bass clarinet from Sha- but essentially the piece is all about forward motion and the listener can really immerse themselves in the groove – and even more so in live performances one would imagine. With Bartsch’s hypnotic piano motifs and Rast’s powerful drumming driving the band Ronin is capable of building up an impressive head of team, such is the relentlessness of the playing that older listeners may be reminded of a jazzier version of Neu!’s “Hallogallo”.

Calm is restored with Sha’s composition “A”, the first time one of his pieces has been included on a Ronin album. It builds gently from a circling motif featuring just the composer’s breathy alto and Bartsch’s piano, subsequently joined by bass and drums, that develops in the classic Ronin manner yet retains something of the simplicity and accessibility of a rock anthem, it’s certainly constructed around the same sort of dynamics.

The lengthy (thirteen minutes) “Modul 36” emerges from the gentle rumblings of the leader’s piano arpeggios with Bartsch subsequently joined in a compelling dialogue by Jordi’s melodic, guitar like electric bass. It’s a piece that was originally recorded for Ronin’s ECM début, “Stoa”, back in 2006 but here places a greater emphasis on the ensemble playing, Bartsch having been featured as a (relatively) conventional soloist on the earlier version.
“Yes, it was a conscious decision to choose this piece to mark this quartet album, but also as a kind of new beginning, and to show how things have developed. In terms of structure and detail the compositional aspects remain but the group feeling is very and the energy more voodoo-ish perhaps”.
And he’s right, once Jordi sets up a hypnotic groove the band play with the kind of feverish intensity associated with Miles Davis’ electric bands, yet sounding totally different. Sha’s shamanic reed incantations are particularly absorbing as the band grooves relentlessly behind him.

“Modul 34” was written back in 2002/3 yet receives its recorded première here. “Sometimes pieces just have to wait until they are ready – or we are ready” Bartsch explains, “part of the challenge with ‘34’ was not to allow it to become too busy on the one hand, or too formal on the other.”
Initially “34” sounds almost pastoral with its rippling piano arpeggios and circling bass clarinet motif but before too long the group are setting up a typically infectious groove that they proceed to develop and embellish with characteristic inventiveness. Again it’s a totally focussed ensemble performance with each member of the band fully attuned to Bartsch’s artistic vision and serving the music faithfully.

The album concludes with the eleven minute “Modul 59”, a more contemplative offering that bookends the album effectively. Here there’s a greater emphasis on atmosphere and gradual development but even so a groove emerges that is both propulsive and compulsive, this embellished by Sha’s melodic interjections. Bartsch himself says of the piece;
“It begins from basic ideas, in this case to do with triplets, and builds until it becomes a sort of polyrhythmic, polyphonic carpet of sound. We’ve rehearsed and developed it extensively, and it still keeps surprising us.”

Listening with fresh ears in the light of Bartsch’s performance at Union Chapel I found myself becoming increasingly absorbed in this music, and it’s certainly the most enjoyable Bartsch album that I’ve heard to date. There’s no doubt that the Swiss has developed a strand of music that is undoubtedly his own, rich, rhythmic and, almost despite the composer’s highly intellectual approach, highly accessible to a surprisingly large number of people.

It’s not jazz in the conventional sense, and in this regard will only suit so many ears, but there’s no doubt that this is singularly original music that is superbly played and produced. It’s distinctive enough and enjoyable enough to earn a recommendation from me, although I appreciate that it’s an album that may hold little appeal to some listeners. For myself I’m at last beginning to see the appeal of Bartsch’s brand of musical Marmite.

Nik Bartsch’s Ronin will play at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club on Monday, November 19th 2018 as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival. Details here;

https://www.ronniescotts.co.uk/performances/view/4806-nik-bartschs-ronin

Awase

Nik Bartsch’s Ronin

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Reviewed by: Ian Mann

Album Review

4 out of 5

Awase

Singularly original music that is superbly played and produced. Bartsch has developed a strand of music that is undoubtedly his own.

Nik Bartsch’s Ronin

“Awase”

(ECM Records ECM 2603)

Nik Bartsch, born 1971, is a Swiss pianist and composer based in Zurich. He studied piano and clarinet as a child before concentrating on linguistics, philosophy and musicology during his time at a student at Zurich University.

Strongly influenced by minimalist and avant garde composers such as Steve Reich, John Cage and Morton Feldman Bartsch formed his first group, Mobile, in 2001, releasing the album “Ritual Groove Music” on the Tonus Music record label, the first of six recordings for the Bern based company.

In 2006 Bartsch signed to the prestigious Munich based label ECM which increased his profile considerably and transformed him into a significant presence on the international jazz scene. “Awase” is his sixth album for the label and represents a continuation of the unique musical path he has been exploring since 2001.

Bartsch’s music operates at the interface of jazz and contemporary classical music with minimalism a clearly discernible influence. The title of that first album, “Ritual Groove Music”, is both highly descriptive, and something of a mission statement. There’s a strong air of spirituality about Bartsch’s music, which has sometimes been described as “Zen Funk”. His compositions evolve slowly and organically, making use of recurring, but subtly mutating, grooves and motifs. Nothing is rushed, giving the music a meditative quality that many listeners find to be strangely beautiful.

Bartsch’s main creative outlets are the groups Ronin and Mobile, the two outfits representing different ways of interpreting Bartsch’s compositions. Ronin is the “Zen Funk” outlet and currently features the enigmatically named Sha (born Stefan Haselbacher) on alto sax and clarinet, Thomy Jordi on four string electric bass guitar and the long serving Kaspar Rast, who has worked with Bartsch since the début, on drums. Previous members of the group, hitherto a five piece, have included Bjorn Meyer on electric six string bass and Andy Pupato on percussion.

Meanwhile Mobile is a wholly acoustic unit that currently includes Sha and Rast plus percussionist Nicolas Stocker. The group sometimes operates as Mobile Extended with the addition of a string quintet featuring two cellos. As the shared personnel might suggest there are many similarities between Ronin and Mobile with several of Bartsch’s pieces being interpreted by both groups. Indeed Bartsch himself has said;
“We’ve always taken the position that the compositions can be played by both groups-Mobile or Ronin- to bring out different aspects of the music”.
Some pieces have been recorded by both groups, as is the case with some of the items on this recording.

Bartsch’s “modular” approach to music is reflected in his titles, each piece is a “Modul” with its own specific number. This ascetic, intellectual, purely functional approach to tune titling is designed to focus the listener’s attention on the structure and spirituality of the music with the composer eschewing descriptive titles that might affect the interpretation of the music, presumably by both his fellow players and his listeners.

Meanwhile the album title “Awase” is a term derived from the martial art of Aikido and means “moving together”, an apt description of Ronin’s collective ethos.

Now, I’ll admit to not always quite “getting” Nik Bartsch. I’ve heard some of his earlier albums and found them a little too repetitive for my tastes, although there’s no denying that he has developed a unique and very personal sound.

However a brief solo piano performance from the man at Union Chapel, Islington as part of the 2018 EFG London Jazz Festival was utterly compelling and has forced me to look at Bartch’s music with a fresh eye and to listen with a more open ear. My account of that London performance can be read as part of my Festival coverage here;
http://www.thejazzmann.com/features/article/efg-london-jazz-festival-saturday-november-18th-2017/

Turning now to the new album which commences with “Modul 60”, a piece previously recorded by the Mobile Extended ensemble on the 2015 album “Continuum”. The composer says of the piece;
“When we did ‘60’ with Mobile I was hearing it in a very chamber music way and it radiated a sort of bitter-sweet atmosphere. With Ronin it has a sparseness, an emptiness and a roughness that I really like. In the studio Manfred (Eicher,  label boss and producer) and I had the idea that it would be nice to play it as a sort of ‘quote’ bringing the story forward from ‘Continuum’. So this new version starts around the middle of the composition”.
At a little over five minutes in length the piece is a good, and eminently accessible, introduction to the Ronin sound. It develops out of Bartsch’s almost subliminal interior piano scrapings and economical chording to embrace the softly plaintive cry of Sha’s alto sax as Rast adds atmospheric, and occasionally dramatic, percussion.

At over eighteen minutes in length “Modul 58” is the album’s ‘magnum opus’.  Bartsch explains that “In Ronin terms it’s built upon a simple pattern cycle, just five against seven, and the same motif even, but it created such an interesting form”. He also mentions the influence of the tribal music styles that he and the group admire and describes the piece as “a kind of metric mantra which keeps loading itself up until we get to the more open part. You can hear, almost ironically, the simplicity of the two rhythms but you cannot match them at the same time. In its direction and its energy this piece still feels new to me, although there is something about it that seems archaic.”
The first section continues the meditative mood established by the opening “Modul 60” as the sounds of Bartsch’s dampened piano strings – his work ‘under the lid’ is consistently atmospheric and inventive – combine with Rast’s percussion shadings and the whispering and keening of Sha’s alto. The piece then gathers momentum in the second section with the propulsive interlocking generated by piano, electric bass, bass clarinet and drums grooves showing just where that “Zen Funk” label came from; at times the rhythms are almost reminiscent of those generated by contemporary electronic dance music. The momentum is punctuated by shorter, quieter passages and instruments drop in and out of the mix – there’s a stunning passage of unaccompanied bass clarinet from Sha- but essentially the piece is all about forward motion and the listener can really immerse themselves in the groove – and even more so in live performances one would imagine. With Bartsch’s hypnotic piano motifs and Rast’s powerful drumming driving the band Ronin is capable of building up an impressive head of team, such is the relentlessness of the playing that older listeners may be reminded of a jazzier version of Neu!’s “Hallogallo”.

Calm is restored with Sha’s composition “A”, the first time one of his pieces has been included on a Ronin album. It builds gently from a circling motif featuring just the composer’s breathy alto and Bartsch’s piano, subsequently joined by bass and drums, that develops in the classic Ronin manner yet retains something of the simplicity and accessibility of a rock anthem, it’s certainly constructed around the same sort of dynamics.

The lengthy (thirteen minutes) “Modul 36” emerges from the gentle rumblings of the leader’s piano arpeggios with Bartsch subsequently joined in a compelling dialogue by Jordi’s melodic, guitar like electric bass. It’s a piece that was originally recorded for Ronin’s ECM début, “Stoa”, back in 2006 but here places a greater emphasis on the ensemble playing, Bartsch having been featured as a (relatively) conventional soloist on the earlier version.
“Yes, it was a conscious decision to choose this piece to mark this quartet album, but also as a kind of new beginning, and to show how things have developed. In terms of structure and detail the compositional aspects remain but the group feeling is very and the energy more voodoo-ish perhaps”.
And he’s right, once Jordi sets up a hypnotic groove the band play with the kind of feverish intensity associated with Miles Davis’ electric bands, yet sounding totally different. Sha’s shamanic reed incantations are particularly absorbing as the band grooves relentlessly behind him.

“Modul 34” was written back in 2002/3 yet receives its recorded première here. “Sometimes pieces just have to wait until they are ready – or we are ready” Bartsch explains, “part of the challenge with ‘34’ was not to allow it to become too busy on the one hand, or too formal on the other.”
Initially “34” sounds almost pastoral with its rippling piano arpeggios and circling bass clarinet motif but before too long the group are setting up a typically infectious groove that they proceed to develop and embellish with characteristic inventiveness. Again it’s a totally focussed ensemble performance with each member of the band fully attuned to Bartsch’s artistic vision and serving the music faithfully.

The album concludes with the eleven minute “Modul 59”, a more contemplative offering that bookends the album effectively. Here there’s a greater emphasis on atmosphere and gradual development but even so a groove emerges that is both propulsive and compulsive, this embellished by Sha’s melodic interjections. Bartsch himself says of the piece;
“It begins from basic ideas, in this case to do with triplets, and builds until it becomes a sort of polyrhythmic, polyphonic carpet of sound. We’ve rehearsed and developed it extensively, and it still keeps surprising us.”

Listening with fresh ears in the light of Bartsch’s performance at Union Chapel I found myself becoming increasingly absorbed in this music, and it’s certainly the most enjoyable Bartsch album that I’ve heard to date. There’s no doubt that the Swiss has developed a strand of music that is undoubtedly his own, rich, rhythmic and, almost despite the composer’s highly intellectual approach, highly accessible to a surprisingly large number of people.

It’s not jazz in the conventional sense, and in this regard will only suit so many ears, but there’s no doubt that this is singularly original music that is superbly played and produced. It’s distinctive enough and enjoyable enough to earn a recommendation from me, although I appreciate that it’s an album that may hold little appeal to some listeners. For myself I’m at last beginning to see the appeal of Bartsch’s brand of musical Marmite.

Nik Bartsch’s Ronin will play at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club on Monday, November 19th 2018 as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival. Details here;

https://www.ronniescotts.co.uk/performances/view/4806-nik-bartschs-ronin


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