Nik Bärtsch’s music is referred to as jazz by default. The instrumentation of his band Ronin coupled with his ebbing song forms pegs him in this genre for the sake of convenience. But if you take just a few minutes out of your day to give Bärtsch a good listen, you’ll notice that jazz makes up for just a few drops in his overall goblet of sound. There are also substantial hints of minimalism as well as a rhythm section that continually blurs the lines between jazz fusion, progressive rock, and whatever else may fall between the categories. Ronin may not “swing” in an old fashioned sense, but they are tight as Craftsman hardware. The Swiss pianist has culled recordings from various performances around the world between 2009 and 2011 to release the simply titled Live, and it’s frighteningly great sounding for a live recording. If you follow the ECM label regularly, you are already well aware that Manfred Eichner wants customers to receive the best sound for their money. Pruning all of the options down to nine tracks from eight different cities could not have been an easy task but Live proves that it was worth the trouble.
Even with a running time of one hour and 45 minutes, Ronin doesn’t waste a second of its time trying to get its internal bearings or read the mood of an audience. No, they just start doing what they do and to hell with the formalities. Bärtsch will vamp on a cyclical figure, both simple and bewilderingly attractive, and Sha will compliment accordingly on either bass clarinet or alto saxophone (strangely keeping the wind musician from any lead roles or excessive wailing). Drummer Kaspar Rast’s patterns will sometimes fit with these patterns or sometimes they might take the polyrhythmic route, sending the downbeat and hi-hat ticks into unexpected places. Bassists Björn Meyer and Thomy Jordi, the latter of whom appears on only one track, will opt for the thick and heavy funk slaps when the tempo really gets going. Percussionist Andi Pupato is along for the ride, just keeping up with all of the seemingly precise changes flying around onstage.
This all may sound brainy and pretentious. With words like “minimalism” and “polyrhythmic”, I can’t say that I really blame you. Rest assured that Nik Bärtsch and Ronin never close the door to certain listeners. It’s actually somewhat of a marvel that music this nuanced can be so warm and inviting. It’s also a pleasant surprise that the overall quality of the music holds up for two-plus years of live performances between Lörrach, Leipzig, Wien, Toyko, Amsterdam, Mannheim, Gateshead, and Salzau. With each track named as a number “Modul”, a pattern for Ronin stretching back to their beginning in 2002, all nine selections are a climax unto themselves. If you don’t believe me, just know that the shortest one is 8:09.
At age 41, I don’t think Nik Bärtsch’s reputation will need any more proving at this point. He has established his language and is keeping to it. But when ECM gives us such a rich release as Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin Live, no one, especially those of the modern piano persuasion, will be complaining about more of the same.
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// Notes from the Road
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