Album Remarks & Appraisals:
After four ECM recordings with Ronin, Bärtsch's new album features Mobile, his all-acoustic group. Mobile is effectively the wellspring of Bärtsch's ritualistic approach to music making, nourished by his concepts of reduction and repetition as well as his fascination with Japanese culture. Here textures from jazz, funk, new music (minimal as well as ritual) and sacred music are organically interwoven.
Personnel: Ola Sendecki, Etienne Abelin (violin); David Schnee (viola); Ambrosius Huber, Solme Hong (cello); Sha (bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet); Nik Bärtsch (piano); Kaspar Rast, Nicolas Stocker (drums, percussion).
Liner Note Authors: Martin Möll; Dániel Vass.
Recording information: Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano (03/2015).
Swiss pianist and composer Nik Bärtsch and his band Ronin grabbed the attention of the international jazz world with four acclaimed ECM recordings between 2006 and 2012. The group's trademark sound lies in minimal, interlocking, contrapuntal, polyrhythmic grooves that Bärtsch defines as "zen funk," played on piano, percussion, and electric bass. It is not only listenable, but actually danceable. But Ronin's roots lie in Mobile, an earlier Bärtsch ensemble that cut two albums -- Ritual Groove Music in 2004 and Aer in 2006 -- before this one. The composer's approach to rhythm, skeletal harmony, counterpoint, and repetition is different but holistic -- everywhere evident in both. The pianist's Mobile features bassist Kaspar Rast (on acoustic upright), and reed multi-instrumentalist Sha (both Ronin regulars), as well as percussionist Nicholas Stocker. Sha plays clarinets exclusively. His function, in direct contrast to his frontline role in Ronin, is as a tonal center and rhythmic collaborator. The music on Continuum is more deliberate, ritualistic -- it's still anchored in grooves but they're less obvious. The discipline of this band is legendary in Switzerland: its earliest incarnation could perform Bärtsch's hypnotic compositions for 36 hours straight.
The album offers revisionings of six pieces from his and Ronin's catalogs, and two new works. Articulating his ongoing obsession with late 20th century classical composition, Bärtsch also scripted a string quartet into three pieces. "Modul 18" contains brushed snare, tuned percussion, and strident basslines to create a dark vibe. The piano, strings, and percussion introduce various low-end modes in a trance-inducing groove. "Modul 8_11" has its funk entrenched in a bass clarinet pulse that acts as a second bassline. Bärtsch offers a linear chordal statement, while shades and colors are added and subtracted almost imperceptibly. Stocker's percussion extends their parameters and the bassline bridges them. The brooding jazz in "Modul 12" is spacier, utilizing softly brushed snares, round-toned cymbals, kalimbas, and occasional piano chords as tonal centers for the rhythms. "Modul 5" contains sharply contrasting contrapuntal statements. They arrive in rounds through the piano's lower middle and high registers. Rast contributes limited modal phrases, while fleet, tapping, high-tuned percussion deceptively offers the impression of a second piano. Though the cycle repeats continually, the music changes constantly. "Modul 44," with strings, is the most gradual piece here. Stocker plays solo for nearly a minute before piano and strings enter; three more pass before they commence playing in ascendant and descendant cycles, accompanied by snare. When the bass and bass clarinet finally enter, the composition's tension, pulse, and tonal variation have already increased in dimension. Here, Mobile's music may appear more static than Ronin's. But that's deceptive. Continuum is European jazz rife with funkiness; it's just more specific sound. It may require a closer listen, at least initially, but once experienced, its depth and constancy are unmistakable. ~ Thom Jurek
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