Jazz CD Reviews

Nik Bartsch’s Ronin “Live” – ECM (2 CDs)

I can't readily think of a group where percussive effects are so important in themselves as opposed to being somewhat of an afterthought.

Published on October 17, 2012

Nik Bartsch’s Ronin “Live” – ECM (2 CDs)

Nik Bartsch’s Ronin “Live” – ECM B0017 473-02 (2 CDs) – [10/2/12]  (59:34; 45:26) ****½:

(Nik Bartsch: piano;  Sha: bass clarinets, alto saxophone;  Bjorn Meyer:  bass;  Kaspar Rast: drums;  Andi Pupato: percussion;  Thomy Jordi: bass on Modul 55).

First off, Manfred Eicher’s production values are tailor-made for a band such as Nik Bartsch’s Ronin.  To the extent that it’s hard to even envision them recording for any other jazz label.  Their minimalist jazz-inspired groove-based classical-ism just crys out for ECM – period.  Anyone who bemoans the compression so prevalent in recordings today will certainly find comfort here.

Ronin is a fascinating band with this collection of live material marking an end to the ten year era of Bjorn Meyer as bassist (his replacement, Thomy Jordi appears only on the last track).  This collection was culled from German festivals and European club dates and concerts from 2009-2011.  It will be interesting to see how Ronin now incorporates its collective vision since Meyer was so often front and center with superb bass leads and solos.

In describing Ronin, Bartsch uses the words “waiting”, “anticipation”, “composition” and “improvised elements”.   I wish I could formulate a proper sentence around these concepts because they do, in combination, define their music.  Often it revolves around repetitive figures and motifs from Bartsch’s piano.  The band takes off on these with composed or tightly improvised playing to establish mood and atmosphere.  The listener basically awaits this combination in anticipation of where it will lead.  Looking around the Ronin website reveals the terms “Zen funk” and ritual groove.  It also contains maybe the most spot-on description:  “creating the maximum effect by minimal means”.   Using the German term “moduls” in naming the songs is quite appropriate, since they can be perceived as pieces of a final sonic structure.  This is the kind of music that certainly does not lend itself to listening to one piece at a time – one really should absorb a whole disc in evaluating the end product.  (And Ronin has released three previous ECM albums for such an endeavor).  Also, this is the type of group where seeing them live would demand one close their eyes for at least part of one number so as not to miss any musical nuance due to visual contamination of the aural senses.  The nine performances flow so well that there is a choice between considering each modul as its own “mini-symphony” or electing to perceive them as part of a much lengthier symphony with thirty or so movements.

Bartsch does not approach the piano as a mere piano – but instead has developed a conceptualization of the instrument’s abilities as an entire keyboard section.  And he is not limited to the keyboard, he often plays the strings themselves at times when needed to elicit the sounds he wants.  For example, in “Modul 22” he lays the bass line on Fender Rhodes to enable Meyer to play guitar-like notes on his bass in the opening section, before later going acoustic and unleashing the piano’s hidden sonic capabilities in adding to the mix that the other players have laid down.   The band as a whole do just this – forcing their instruments to create the sonics they achieve.  Sha seemingly makes his bass clarinet parts just barely perceptible, while bringing his alto up front (but he’ll also sometimes double up  on bass clarinet with Meyer to create a monstrous bass groove for polyrythms).  Another enjoyable quality is that Bartsch is not above playing simplistic notes as a base for the others to grow on.  Because Ronin is, in fact, an evolving, mutating, morphing organism growing itself based on building fragments into a whole.  That is what they do.  Vitally important to these creations is the empathy between percussion and drums.  I can’t readily think of a group where percussive effects are so important in themselves as opposed to being somewhat of an afterthought to supplement the drum kit.

It’s really not easy to address each specific composition, nor is that the way it should be done.  Better to view the two discs as an accumulation of ideas creating a musical monument.  That’s actually an appropriate term since both bassist Meyer and percussionist Pupato have now left.  This is now a document of where they were – it remains to be seen what Ronin will now become.  After all, this release is the type of accomplishment that brings intellectualism and pride of ownership to the listening experience.  With Nik Bartsch at the helm, this will assuredly become a continuing situation going forward.

TrackList:  Disc One:  Moduls 41—17, 35, 42, 17, 22.  Disc Two:  Moduls 45, 48, 47, 55.

—Birney K. Brown

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