Swiss pianist Nik Bartsch and his neo–jazz-funk ensemble Ronin play music unlike anyone in recent memory. The group rummages through the work of a wide swath of global impresarios, ranging from trance to jazz to funk, and even stretches to embrace the ultra-refined mimesis of Morton Feldman’s oeuvre. At a recent gig at Joe’s Pub, clarinetist Sha piped out short, microtonal arpeggio bursts on his massive contrabass clarinet, while Bartsch—in the august avant tradition of John Cage’s prepared pieces—struck the innards of his piano with a drumstick. Bartsch’s concise hits provided a contrapuntal statement to Bjorn Meyer’s somber, minimalist bass line, as the music left behind its darker side and burst into a glissade of trills and tranquil tones that teased out long, thin lines of sound.
The group’s newest album, Holon—Bartsch’s eighth CD, and his fifth recording with Ronin—embodies a sense of restrained dread, where tinkling keyboards and tippling percussion can slowly disintegrate into a simple shaking of sleigh bells. In this purely acoustic album you accelerate through a progression of notes, as the sound winds down a back alley of sensory provocations.
Bartsch refers to his music as “Zen funk” or “spiritual groove music,” claiming that its stark sense of rhythm comes from his own existence living as an extreme urbanite. He likes to employ multiple rhythms simultaneously, and toy with interlocking musical themes that can be combined in an infinite number of ways. Bartsch first explored this approach with his early group Mobile, who, taking a cue from the extended sessions of composer La Monte Young, once played continuously for thirty-six hours. Though that was a stimulating and novel idea, it required tremendous amounts of time, preparation, and money. Ronin, which grew out of an ad-hoc version of Mobile, embodies a more martial-arts spirit. Bartsch, a practitioner of Aikido, admired the sensibility of the lone warrior wandering far off the beaten path, with a special “Batman–and–James Brown groove.” Finding the way of the jazz musician, with its endless horizons, too vast, and the constraints of classical composition too limiting, he took his inspiration from the composer Igor Stravinsky, who claimed that freedom is to be found within form. Bartsch’s form is born not from pure cerebral aspirations, but from the physicality inherent in movement, whether it is the movement of musicians’ fingers, the sway of their bodies, or something more specific, like the hidden coil of a martial artist. The relationship between tension and relaxation becomes key to the ebb and flow of Ronin’s individualistic sound dioramas.
When Bartsch is not touring, those dioramas are developed every Monday night at the Bazillus Club, a small, intimate performance space in Zurich where he holds a residency. Unlike the United States, Switzerland nurtures its chosen creative types with perks that enable untrammeled time for composing and development: Bartsch’s previous album, Stoa, was developed and written in Japan while he was on a Wekjhar grant from the City of Zurich. That record, also released by ECM, was recorded under the auspices of Manfred Eicher, the label’s legendary founder, whose work with Steve Reich, Arvo Pärt, John Adams, and Meredith Monk won him a 2002 Grammy award for classical producer of the year, as well as nominations in the same category for 2003 and 2004.
Ronin’s music is utterly unique—there is no other way to describe it. In a world where we are assaulted with multitasking, TV, the internet, radio, iPods, text-messaging phones, and other instruments of information overload, it is truly wondrous that such a sparse, engaging, and refined sensibility exists