Nik Bärtsch's Ronin
Operating as an avant-garde jazz quintet under Swiss composer Nik Bärtsch, Ronin craft tight, deliberate instrumentals, achieving through repetition a kind of ritualized hypnosis.
Their modus operandi is the modul, a lengthy meditation of song bound to frustrate the impatient. The shortest track is the first, "Modul 42," and it's more than six minutes.
It begins with the chimes of a piano, Bärtsch playing a series of notes that might score a pensive moment in a film, like gray dawn breaking on the day of a trial. Kaspar Rast, the drummer, then taps a cymbal and they're off: Rast focusing on hi-hat and the rim of his snare, brass man Sha adding accents, and bassist Bjorn Meyer coloring the scene with a foreboding that matches Bärtsch's now-darker notes. Percussionist Andi Pupato works subtly, skulking around in the background, jingling here and trickling there, possibly using a drain pipe at one point.
"Modul 41_17" develops slower. The opening piano is muffled, its tones sounding more akin to the shallow twang of a rubber band than to the standard resonance of hammers on strings. Meyer comes in, playing variations of a sequence, then roaming as Bärtsch's instrument regains its voice. Ronin burst forth at 5:22 and 6:56, with rimshots, puffs of alto sax and a conviction in Bärtsch's fingers, and the rest of the piece is devoted to the band expanding on an indefatigable loop by Meyer.
One thing that stands out, aside from Ronin's obvious technical prowess, is how restrained they are. Not only is nobody showboating, but most of the time no one player strays from the pack. If there are solos, they are masked rather than spotlighted. It fits Bärtsch's expressed path of asceticism, or self-denial. Moreover, the pace at which the tracks evolve can be seen as its own form of denial: the antithesis of instant gratification.
Yet Bärtsch's credo, which he details in the liner notes, is that "an ecstatic groove and an ascetic awareness of form and sound in composed music are not mutually exclusive." In other words, asceticism doesn't have to be bland, boring and sexless.
So let's test that with "Modul 45." Meyer sticks to a rigid bass pattern, but it's a funky one. The hinge-like whine of Sha's saxophone adds some heat, and Bärtsch's piano circles around it before they lock step. Meyer breaks pattern and throbs deeply, leading to a delicate passage from Bärtsch. And then -- kablammo! -- a florid blare from Sha's hot, hot sax.
Thursday, January 1, 2009
Nik Bärtsch's Ronin