Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin – Awase (2018)

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The first time or two I’ve listened to Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin spring 2018 release Awase it felt like something was missing, that this one wasn’t up to par with the prior eight albums. This being their first album since 2012’s Live and the first studio album since Llyrìa the year before, the sonic footprint Ronin had indeed dwindled somewhat, since replacing Björn Meyer’s 6-string bass guitar with Thomy Jordi’s four string guitar and percussionist Andi Pupato departed with no replacement at all. That left a quartet with also Bärtsch on piano, Sha on bass clarinet/alto sax and Kaspar Rast on drums.

None of that has made Ronin incomplete in the least. The originators of ‘ritual groove music’ remain focused on that mission, but this in a band in gradual but perpetual transition and the strategy might not manifest itself on the first or even second listen but when it does, that “a-ha!” moment is always rewarding. So, Jordi might not be as much of a natural ‘lead guitar’ bassist as Meyer but he can weave himself deeper into Bärtsch’s elaborate tapestries. Extra percussion can come from unconventional places, such as from knocking on panel of a piano or puffing on a reed, and nothing is lost from doing so.

“Modul 60” clocks in at a tidy five minutes, which is actually a truncated version of a composition Bärtsch introduced in his Mobile ensemble via their Continuum release from 2016. Though the leader has spent the bulk of his recording career with ECM, this performance with its wider spacing and Sha’s Jan Garbarek’s tonality sounds much more like that classic ‘ECM sound’ than anything they’ve done before.

Genius in music often involves originating novel ideas and revealing them to be as if they are natural occurrences. As “Modul 58” unfolds from its almost childlike pattern, we discover it’s a rhythmic trick of combining two metres. And the idea blossoms with the careful layering of groove elements and subtle variations, steadfastly remaining in touch with the original pattern of notes.

“A” is the first non-Bärtsch composition to appear on a Ronin album. Penned by Sha, it threads two patterns together, each played by a hand of Bärtsch, and Sha breaking off to add a third motif.

“Modul 36” is a quintessential Ronin track, but this isn’t the first time it’s appeared; this was the leadoff track from their ECM debut Stoa. The newer version begins with a lengthy bass spotlight for Jordi, playing with the melodicism he brings to the group and one of the rare moments solos are played on Awase. What follows is a tough groove, where Bärtsch makes up for the missing Pupato with percussion from his piano but very discreetly slips in some electric piano alongside his acoustic one. It’s an exhilarating ride, with changes dramatically inserted at key spots and the Rast/Jordi rhythm section acting as indestructible force.

The circular pattern found at one point during “Modul 34” is so complex, it portrays the illusion of Bärtsch playing it with three or four hands. After some further development, it concludes with a triumphant resolution.

“Modul 59” is a piece that Bärtsch believes points the way for further evolution of his Ronin group, where he begins with a simple triplet and then he and the combo not just build up the cadence in crafty ways, but almost indiscriminately coat on more and more harmonic and rhythmic complexity. By the time the end is reached, it’s transformed into different beast but sharing DNA with the original one.

It’s a somewhat revamped Ronin, but Nik Bärtsch saw opportunity with those changes and exploited them. Awase can move both your mind and your soul but the deceptively fresh approach it takes to get under the skin like that is the brilliance of Bärtsch and his Ronin quartet. If you don’t get it on the first listen, put on some headphones and take it for another spin; I’m sure glad I did.


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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