After a successful run with his band Ronin, Swiss pianist and composer Nik Bärtsch has decided to reunite his Mobile ensemble. On paper, Mobile looks like a modern jazz outfit—Bärtsch himself on piano, Sha on the bass and contrabass clarinets, Nicolas Stocker on auxiliary/tuned percussion, and Kaspar Rast on drums. But if you have followed Bärtsch’s career for any given length of time, you are already aware that Nik Bärtsch isn’t exactly a jazz musician.
His ensembles incorporate jazz elements into their performance, but his initial compositions glide on conventional scales and modes. You can’t call it neo-classical because Mobile likes to get funky with their beat from time to time. That can lead to something far more post-rock than something that swings. You just end up chasing your tail when trying to nail a convenient genre label to Bärtsch’s style, so you might as well just dive headfirst into Continuum, the pianist’s first album with Mobile in over ten years.
Continuum is more of an expansion for Mobile than a reunion. Nicolas Stocker is the new kid on the block, joining the band after attending numerous Ronin performances. Three of the tracks feature a string section with Etienne Abelin and Ola Sendecki on violin, David Schnee on viola, and Ambrosius Huber and Solme Hong on cello. On top of that, Continuum features new arrangements of older Bärtsch compositions. When you add it all up, it’s the sound equivalent of a beam of light hitting a spectrum—it was the same light as before, but here more colors come out to play.
Continuum is a long album. With only eight tracks, it lasts well over an hour. With one exception, every “Modul” hovers around an eight- to ten-minute length. Considering Bärtsch’s rhythmic approach to composition and the fact that Mobile has two percussionists, many of the tracks are driven by deeply entrenched grooves.
One particularly unique beat, the one that keeps “Modul 4” chugging, is spiced by Sha’s playing more than Rast’s or Stocker’s. Spa produces a syncopated tone so low on his clarinet’s scale that it might as well be another percussion instrument. Then you have “Modul 18”, a melancholy work that could pass for acoustic trip-hop, thanks to the string quintet.
Yet “Modul 60” somehow manages to outdo it in the dramatic department. The strings keep up the same sighing figure through a variety of slow, minor key figures, as if it were hesitant to ever resolve itself. When “Modul 8-11” arrives at the end, it’s just the right mix of mystery and funk with Stocker happily bonking away on his piece of whatever it is he’s hitting at the moment.
“Modul 8-11” doesn’t retroactively alter the entire album’s tone. While their playing can be every bit as spritely as Ronin, Continuum captures Mobile in a low, pensive light. This isn’t to say that the music isn’t as successful overall, it’s just that establishing a warm sense of intimacy with it is going to take a little work on your part.
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