Nik Bärtsch’s Mobile – Continuum (2016)

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Before Nik Bärtsch’s electric/acoustic Ronin, there was Nik Bärtsch’s all-acoustic Mobile, and the innovative Swiss pianist, composer and bandleader returns to the band he formed in 1997. Continuum (out April 22, 2016) will still seem like a new direction at first blush to those who first noticed Bärtsch from his four Ronin albums released on the higher profile ECM Records label. In truth, Bärtsch developed his one-of-a-kind brand of music before Ronin came along, a ‘ritualistic’ approach to a cross-section of jazz, funk, African, minimalist, and other shades of styles.

But Continuum will nonetheless will be a revelation to many, and perhaps the most enthralling part of that is how easily Bärtsch can port over this very contemporary style he’s developed to decidedly more traditional instrumentation. Whereas in Ronin where his piano was joined by an electric bassist along with a bass clarinetist (Sha) and a drummer (Kasper Rast), Mobile dispenses with the bass and adds another percussionist (Ambrosius Huber). For an approach that places such an emphasis on the groove, taking away that amplified instrument of funk would seem to make it much harder to carry out Bärtsch’s sophisticated method.

Instead, we hear Bärtsch able to swap and shift instruments without moving off his method and the results that method brings about. Nothing electrified was needed to make “Modul 29_14” electrifying; it’s got that same kind of tight, metronomic rhythm and finely attenuated minimalism. Sha’s pulsating notes and Bärtsch’s left hand move into the space where you’d expect that bass to occupy, and with the double-manned percussion, the parts fit together with the precision of — how shall I say it? — a Swiss watch. But there’s so much more going on here in spite of the repetitive figure, such as a bass clarinet counter-melody, a glockenspiel integrating perfectly with Bärtsch’s right hand, and several alternate variations on that riff.

Mobile, like Ronin, are also masters at saying a lot with so little; a brushed snare and little else but occasional piano chord reveals the spare melody of “Modul 12” as economically as possible, leaving the listener’s mind to fill in the blanks. “Modul 5” Bärtsch displays a prowess on using the piano as an instrument of rhythm, hitting one note to start, then adds more notes percussively to match the rapid pulse of the rhythm. Gradually, his melodic progression unfolds, reaching a resolving note following a dramatic build to the end of the section. Then he restarts repeating figure with a variation of it in a deft use of modulation. “Modul 8_14” is the funkiest tune of the lot, and a single piano note mostly establishes the groove, with the drums taking cues from it. The rhythm gradually gathers tension, only to pull back to reveal a calypso-like beat and — in a surprising move for Bärtsch — introduces a whole new chord progression.

But as they say, “that’s not all.” For three modules, the Mobile quartet is supplemented with a string quintet of two violins, two cellos and a viola. A two beat accent rhythm establishes the strut that sets “Modul 18” into motion, and when the strings appears with a touch of Stocker’s glockenspiel, they explicitly add the complexity to the harmony usually only implied on other Bärtsch songs. Employing some of the tactics of chamber music, the string section layers over the core band in such a way to add richness. “Modul 44” begins as a hushed circular figure, and the string players subtly burrow themselves deep into the melody. Evolving at a gradual pace, it’s no longer ‘hushed’ six minutes in as Rast’s brushes are replaced by the pounding of sticks and all those intricacies in the background come to the fore.

The genius of Nik Bärtsch’s groups lies in their ability to take simple figures and do some real sophisticated things with seemingly so little. That repetitive figure ends up being the only ‘simple’ thing about the music, while the rhythmic patterns and modulations push this music into innovative territory. That Bärtsch can apply this innovation so effectively with a bass-less combo and even with a small string section further validates the soundness of this unique approach.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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