Swiss pianist and composer Nik Bärtsch makes what he refers to as “ritual groove music,” in at least a couple of different settings. One is his highly regarded electronic jazz ensemble Ronin or the Ronin Rhythm Clan, and the other is the acoustic project Mobile (pronounced MO-bi-lay). His latest release is with the latter, an engrossing work called Continuum on ECM.
In addition to Bärtsch himself, a couple of musicians play in both groups, the drummer Kaspar Rast and a fellow who goes by the single name Sha, on saxophone, bass clarinet and contrabass clarinet. The core group also includes percussionist Nicolas Stocker. This recording is joined by the Extended Mobile, a string quintet of two violins, viola and two cellos, although not on every piece.
I was skeptical about something called “ritual groove music,” and I was hardly swayed by the fact that Bärtsch doesn’t so much name his pieces as number them, calling them “moduls” as though they’re interchangeable pieces of a machine. But from the first bar of Continuum I was hooked. Bärtsch’s compositions in general are bursting with vibrant colors and textures and rife with dynamic tension. Typically the pianist sets the mood that is carried forward and commented on by the two percussion players, and the spaces in between are subtly colored in by the reed player. Sha’s playing, in fact, is so subtle much of the time that it seems to exist at a subliminal level.
The album leaps out of the gate with the insistent rhythm and tension of “Modul 29_14.” The melody, such as it is, consists largely of a restless syncopation between Bärtsch’s left and right hands, and for the first two minutes it’s mostly accented only by DEEP bass drum notes at regular intervals. But at about two minutes it dives into a counter-melody featuring a soulful figure played by Sha and insistent drumming and percussion. It makes for, I think, fascinating viewing as well, though you can judge or yourself with this video of the piece: Modul 29_14:
So you see, “ritual groove” is a pretty good description. The works combine minimalism, modern classical, jazz and more, played in repetitive patterns that sometimes evolve slowly, sometimes take quick right turns.
The album ends with my other favorite, another extremely dynamic and emotionally upbeat work, “Modul 8_11,” with Rast playing some sort of percussion instrument that sounds like a muted dulcimer, and Sha droning on the bass clarinet. All four eventually join in and build the tension to a fever pitch before suddenly breaking into a soulful groove, which eventually takes them back in the direction of the tension-building opening section, then back out and in, a cycle of circular composition and playing. You can watch a live performance of it on Mobile’s YouTube channel.
I’ll have to add “Modul 5” to my favorites here, one of the pieces that enlists the string quintet. Set in 6/8 time, it builds to a frenetic beehive of sound, with Sha playing long whole notes behind Nik’s circular 16th-note patterns. “Modul 4” is driving jazz fusion of a sort, combined with the feel of machine music, a cinematic soundtrack to one of those 20th Century films that celebrated industry. The quintet adds lots of color and mood to the lengthy and portentous pastorale of “Modul 60,” built around a two-note downward minor fifth couplet (I think).
I find Continuum constantly engaging, by turns meditative and stirring. The very naming convention invites the listener to assign meaning to these sounds, which makes it a nearly revolutionary approach to music. Highly recommended.
Nik Bärtsch’s Mobile is briefly touring behind this release, including a short U.S. run with dates in Portland, Ore., Troy, NY, and New York City. Details on Bärtsch’s website.