I was immediately smitten by the music of Nik Bärtsch when I first heard it via Continuum, the 2016 ECM release from his all-acoustic project Mobile, and a show I saw from that tour was probably my favorite from that year. Now Bärtsch returns with a new release from Ronin, his not-entirely-acoustic ensemble, its first in six years.
The Swiss composer and pianist makes what I think of as “iterative jazz” and which Bärtsch calls “ritual groove music.” It’s an invention all his own, occupying a space in the realms of jazz, funk and contemporary composition: repetitive, slowly building by addition into dizzying layers of sound and rhythm, and regularly breaking out into thrillingly funky grooves.
With Bärtsch on this outing is a lean quartet rather than the previous quintet: his long-time reed player Sha on bass clarinet and alto saxophone, with new members Thomy Jordi on a four-string bass guitar and Kaspar Rast drums.
Bärtsch composes in pieces that he titles modules, and is not averse to revisiting various modules as his ensembles shape-shift. On Awase (a term from the martial art Aikido that means “moving together”) there are two pieces that have appeared elsewhere in different forms. The opening “Modul 60” was a centerpiece on Continuum but here it is played, as Bärtsch says as “a sort of quote” from the previous recording, starting somewhere around the middle of the piece. It begins with a sparse, cold solo piano, in five beats, with occasional atmospheric intrusions from Sha’s alto and Rast’s cymbals and although layers are added it doesn’t ever reach a climax. A perfect and enigmatic introduction to the disc.
The other repeated piece is “Modul 36,” which an earlier version of the group recorded in 2006. Bärtsch deliberately chose it to demonstrate the differences between the two iterations of Ronin. I absolutely love this piece, set in a straightforward six beats, which visits a lot of intriguing sonic spaces in its nearly 14 minutes: dark and light chordal structures, textures that ebb and flow from bass-piano chamber work to soulful funk from the bass guitar and bass clarinet to esoteric prepared piano.
Bass clarinet has become one of my favorite instruments over the past few years. It’s just a delight to hear it in all kinds of settings from rock to folk to this funky rhythmic stew. Sha and Bärtsch make the most of its unique timbres by pairing it with prepared and straight piano, nowhere better than in “Modul 36.”
Between 58 and 36 is a transitional piece by Sha titled “A.” In a slow, deliberate seven beats, the alto and piano play a hypnotic melody that in its simplicity sometimes seems portentous, sometimes optimistic, often depending on what the rhythm section is doing.
A new piece, “Modul 34,” is quite rhythmically complex. This one will take repeated close listens to figure out just what’s going on as it shifts among time signatures and moods. And the closer, “Modul 59,” is complex in a different way: slower and more deliberate, moody and atmospheric, with textures galore. “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,” Bärtsch says. “We’ve rehearsed and developed it extensively, and it still keeps surprising us.”
Let yourself be surprised, too, at this music that’s one of a kind.