Hot Tracks #08

Artist: Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin
Album: Awase
Published: March 4th, 2018
Label: ECM Records
Produced by: Manfred Eicher
Recorded by: Gérard de Haro, Nicolas Baillard
Recorded at: Studios La Buissonne, Pernes-les-Fontaines (F)
Mixed by: Gérard de Haro, Nicolas Baillard
Mastered by: Gérard de Haro, Nicolas Baillard

Nik Bärtsch: piano
Sha: bass clarinet, alto saxophone
Thomy Jordi: bass
Kaspar Rast: drums

Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin (hereafter referred to as NBsR for brevity) is a Swiss music ensemble founded in Zürich in 2001 by Nik Bärtsch, a pianist by classical training, and a scholar of Japanese Zen culture, and Aikido martial art.

According to japanese feudal tradition, rōnin is the samurai remained without a lord, which the Bushido warrior code sanctioned shall commit the ritual suicide named seppuku to restore his honor; failing to enforce this precept would turn the samurai into a rōnin, an estranged reject, disavowed and forced to wander among bandits and mercenaries.

Despite having outgrown 20 years of age since their first inception, NBsR still fail to fit into any established musical genre, beside the self-given zen funk tag that they clip onto their act, which clearly resonates with the concepts of minimalism and serialism that their founder and composer has researched, in his studies of 20th century masters Steve Reich, John Cage and Morton Feldman.

There’s a strong link between the pattern-driven structure of Bärtsch’s compositions and the Aikido discipline, in which neutral stance and undivided focus precede the sudden burst of action… bridging between Eastern and Western cultures as they are, NBsR jump from near-stillness to manic-like frenzy in fractions of seconds, and seemingly effortlessly at it, keeping perfectly sync-ed to the tightest framework, in a most intricate polyrhythmic interplay, each of them fluidly handling change of tempo, technique or timbre before hitting breaks, stop-overs and accents with the widest dynamic range of musical expression.

On top of his function as composer and ensemble director, Nik Bärtsch as pianist extends his instrument beyond established techniques of the classical repertoire, with many contraptions of the prepared catalogue from the 20th century masters of which he’s a thorough scholar – including frequent manual excursions on the very strings of it sans keyboard, which add to an unusually varied palette of tones for the type of instrument that we’ve grown to believe piano is.

Sha, as the stage name of Bern-native Stefan Haslebacher playing alto saxophone and bass clarinet in NBsR since their beginning, is no less daring on his reeds, which serve both the scored and the improvised parts with staccatos, lipsmacks, breathing atmos pads and percussive beats alike, still perfectly in control of the generous lyricism of melodies, wherever and whenever they’re super-imposed on the pattern-like framework of compositions.

Thomy Jordi plays a 4-string Fender Jazz bass, here – and it matters most, because the role of bass in the NBsR’s recipe marks its evolution over time, after the early member Björn Meyer left the ensemble in 2012; what Meyer did on a 6-stringed instrument, indeed a most distinctive glyph in NBsR sound signature, Thomy Jordi does leaner, streamlined, and more akin to the “funk” element in the “zen-funk” style tag of the band (less baroque-like would pretty much sum it up, maybe).

Kaspar Rast sits at the drums set, and it’s the foundation clocking the whole ensemble, holding the fort onto which all members exhibit their athletic prowess – himself included! because, not only his drumming makes for the respiratory tempo of the whole band, but it also expands (and contracts) both the dynamic- and frequency spectrum available to each voice in the choir, in a manner of speaking, with a massive injection of energetic drive, and glittering particles suspended in mid-air when things get to the largo side of tempo.

Trying to describe what NBsR deliver with Awase doesn’t stand much chance to succeed, given how unorthodox their sound and music is, in general – but also because Awase is the most evolutionary product of NBsR discography to date, and the first studio album with Thomy Jordi marking the difference from all previous albums.

Not to be missed in any Hot Tracks presentation, last but not least, is a word on the relevance of this work for the discerning (and curious) audio enthusiast (regardless of her or him or them being a devout listener, a musician, a sound engineer or sound designer, when not all the very four elements distilled into one human being): it tells a most clever and daring story of how sound proves itself influential in delivering a complex composition that wouldn’t stand on its feet otherwise.

Any hit, any beat, any reverb, any staccato, any break, any change of time signature or harmony here get purchase because of how sound has been designed by the composer and ensemble – and engineered in a studio that does what ECM sells best, and what isn’t ECM-typical at all, in any Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin release, and Awase in particular.

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