Photo: Jonah Holthaus / Courtesy of ECM Records

Nik Bärtsch and Ronin Make an Exceptional Return

Despite a lengthy break and some lineup changes, Nik Bärtsch's Ronin hasn't skipped a beat on Awase.

Nik Bärtsch's Ronin
4 May 2018

Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch has remained active, but his band Ronin has been lying low for a while. According to Bärtsch, this break was meant to give the band some space to think and regroup.
Awase is the result of their time away and, upon first listen, Ronin sounds like the same Ronin from a few years back. The minimalist piano patterns, the interlocking rhythms that Bärtsch creates with his rhythm section, the percussive attack of reedsman Sha — it’s all there. So what’s different this time around?

For one thing, Ronin is now a quartet. Percussionist Andi Pupato has left, leaving Kaspar Rast to handle all of the drumming duties. Bassist Björn Meyer has been replaced by Thomy Jordi, meaning that the number of strings used on that particular instrument has dropped by two. The band had to re-train themselves to produce that tight-as-a-knot sound they were already known for. That led to some pleasant discoveries along the way.

For one thing, Bärtsch showed that he is not above covering himself. He dusted off the composition “Modul 60”, previously recorded by his
Mobile band, and truncated it into an opener for Awase. “Modul 36” showed up on Ronin’s 2006 ECM debut Stoa, and the Ronin of 2018 give it a subtle update. Though “Modul 34” predates everything else here, it hasn’t been recorded before. Awase also marks clarinetist/alto saxophonist Sha’s debut as a composer. Rather than assign a numeric title to his piece, he gave us all one we can easily remember — “A”.

“A” is a slower piece, one that uses more than eight minutes to dole out all the variations of its seemingly simple theme. Sha’s sustained, descending notes are a perfect foil to Bärtsch’s gentle syncopation. It’s a chance for Ronin to show a more ponderous side of their personality and they pull it off without batting an eye. “Module 58” starts in what feels like a similar fashion, it soon becomes clear that the prepared piano figure in Bärtsch’s left hand is sowing the seed for something far more involved and intricate.

“Modul 59”, the other tune that hasn’t been “recycled” as it were, closes out
Awase in a rather eerie manner. According to Bärtsch himself, this is a piece that Ronin is still work-shopping. Its harmony is nearly as ambiguous as the mood, landing in some fascinating grey area that is neither fast, slow, happy, or somber. Downbeats and their emphasis are in a constant shift, giving the listener doubts as to when they can nod their head or tap their foot. Sha’s melody will sometimes play a figure that fits in the minor key only to point it in a major direction for the next go-round. “We’ve rehearsed and developed it extensively, and it still keeps surprising us,” Bärtsch says of “Modul 59”, and it’s not hard to hear why that is.

The fact that three of
Awase‘s six tracks pulled from Nik Bärtsch’s past could give the false impression that he and Ronin are suffering from a creative drought. For other bands, that may be the case. Ronin vibrates on another frequency, where retooling an old song is just as refreshing to the ear as writing a whole new one. Slow evolution is still evolution.

RATING 8 / 10
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