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Nik Bartsch: The Road To Stoa

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Pianist/composer Nik Bartsch calls what he does "ritual groove music," in an attempt to get across the mix of aesthetics and philosophy involved. This mix includes the mastery of technique, the total immersion in and lack of separation between thought and action, pure funkiness, emotionalism vs. minimalism, repetition vs. development, and trance vs. the dramatic—with the whole package delivered as a gift from the players to the listener.

The individual elements that make up music can be loosely identified as rhythm and meter, and melody and harmony, and they rely on each other to make up the whole. Bartsch has chosen to strip away most of the melodic and harmonic considerations to concentrate on the most primal part of music—rhythm and meter.

You'll see in the track listings below that Bartsch calls each track a "modul," with a number, or numbers, attached. These moduls are individual compositions that derive their identity from how the various layers use meter (time signature) and rhythm (the grouping of notes). Each specific cell has a feel and emotion to it, which then interacts with the other cells to create larger structures, built on the phase resonances that occur.

Accents and syncopation can add a funky kick to the mix at times also, thus creating a modul. Moduls can be combined to produce something new as in "Modul 8_9" from Live (and others). Some moduls do not seem to be able to live on their own, while others used in combination can.

Repetition is an important element in Bartsch's music, in the same way as it is in meditation or chanting. Here is where ritual is added to the mix, as the heady groove begins to mesmerize the listener. However, the balance between the hypnotic and the boring is never forgotten. While a strong feeling of control is always present, it is nevertheless counteracted by a playful joyousness, which comes through loud and clear.

This music is something new, but with antecedents that Bartsch is quick to mention: Igor Stravinsky, Morton Feldman, Steve Reich and Lennie Tristano—plus the freedom of jazz and the funk of James Brown. At the same time, for all the intellectual complexity implied above, the music is directly emotional, and has the power to change the listener.

One thing that is very clear from listening to the seven albums under consideration here is that a particular modul's "personality" can be recognized both when played alone (just like a melody normally is) and when combined with another. They really do become your friends.

The albums should not be viewed as six early, developmental releases culminating in the explosion of Stoa. Although one can discern the working out of various ideas, the core concepts are evident and well presented from the beginning, and the music only gets better as repeated listens make Bartsch's aesthetic clearer.

For a glimpse into the sound of Ronin live, click here and scroll down to the three clips on YouTube from Jazzfestival Berlin 2006. The excitement and drama produced by the band is excruciatingly wonderful.

See also Paul Olson's interview with Nik Bartsch.

Nik Bartsch's Ronin

Stoa

ECM

2006

The release of Stoa (ECM, 2006) created an intense interest in this heretofore unknown composer and his band. Compared to the earlier records below, it sounds deeper and more polished, but this can easily be attributed variously to the band having two more years of playing between AER and Stoa, the natural maturation of Bartsch as a composer working out his ideas, the use of a much better piano and perhaps even the influence of Manfred Eicher.

From the high drama of the opening of "Modul 36" to the mutating repetitions of "Modul 38_17," the band shows itself to be an indivisible whole. Yet the various layers played by each of musicians can be heard individually, alongside how they fit together, and this produces the total listening experience that crashes over the listener as Stoa. Full reviews here, here and here.

Nik Bartsch's Mobile

AER

Ronin Rhythm Records

2006 (Recorded 2003)

Mobile as a group has a slightly different focus than Ronin. The music has more of the "ritual" in it and less of the "groove." While repetition comes more to center stage, development is not forgotten, and static feeling that grows over time is balanced by addition, subtraction or mutation.

The sound is also drier and pitched higher (bassist Bjorn Meyer is missing) with more separation between the instruments, which when combined with everything else creates a more subdued feel.

However, perhaps just to be contrary, "Modul 8_11" runs counter to the rest of the record with a strong, deep almost funky feel, but then again, 8 and 11 are two of Bartsch's favorites.

Nik Bartsch's Ronin

REA

Ronin Rhythm Records

2006 (Recorded 2003)

REA marks the first appearance of deep reed minimalist Sha on moduls 26 & 27. As an interesting aside, "Modul 27," which sounds the closest to pure James Brown funk than any other track, as it is propelled by the pulsing simultaneous bass and drum, is listed as composed not by Bartsch alone. Tenor saxophonist Thomy Geiger and trumpeter Michael Glassman also appear on 27, and play horn figures that would not be out of place on a James Brown record.

"Modul 22," which is over sixteen minutes long, starts with a very clear example of Bartsch's compositional technique and resultant sound. For over three minutes, a small pulse is defined by the shaker and scraper, with some added floating sounds to keep us from drifting. When Kaspar Rast's drums and the piano enter, the differing meters and rhythms begin to interact, producing varying phase effects that can be both maddening and thrilling simultaneously. The simple beat seems to have disappeared, although, if you concentrate, it is still there.

REA has an overall sound in between that of Ronin's Stoa and Mobile's AER.

Nik Bartsch's Ronin

Live

Ronin Rhythm Records

2006 (Recorded 2002)

"Modul 14" starts off with a very dry sound, marked by a damped piano note, but builds steadily. Rast seems to keep signaling a break, but it does not come, teasing us. Meyer plays in the upper register, perhaps improvising, and then it all comes together mightily when he joins the keyboard in a very, very heavy vamp that the audience applauds, appreciating the deep groove being set up. The second half of the track inexorably builds on this, delicately treading the line between repetition that entrances and repetition that bores.

When listening to Live, it becomes clear that, while the feeling of improvisation, of taking off, of winging it, is very strong, where it is happening is frustratingly unclear. "Modul 11," which appears four times by itself, and once mixed, has many sections and articulations as it plays itself out, and the audience explodes when it is over.

Bartsch has remarked that Ronin is a different animal when playing live as opposed to the studio. Perhaps one of the things that makes Stoa so satisfying that the band managed to capture the spontaneity so apparent here.

Nik Bartsch

Hishiryo

Ronin Rhythm Records

2006 (Recorded 2002)

Hishiryo obviously stands out because the instrumentation is solo piano. However, its main interest is that one can clearly see the results of Bartsch the composer at work. With the exception of moduls "TM" and "6," all of the moduls appear on other, mostly earlier records.

We are thus given a fascinating glimpse into the music in its nakedness, before it is arranged for Mobile or Ronin. Most of the playing really is solo, with only a few piano overdubs here and there and the percussion, which is overdubbed.

All of the aesthetic underpinnings are there: the concentration, the use of repetition balanced between trance and boredom, the interaction of meter and rhythmic patterns, the ability to develop by addition, subtraction, mutation and juxtaposition of opposites.

Listen carefully to "Modul TM," which is based on the rhythmic essence of Lennie Tristano's "Turkish Mambo," and then listen to the Tristano original for a real treat. "Modul 5" is a technical tour de force on top of everything else. Fascinating.

Nik Bartsch's Ronin

Randori

Ronin Rhythm Records

2006 (Recorded 2002)

"Modul 15" plays with time in much the same way as "Modul 22" on REA, in that what we thought we were hearing rhythmically in the bass is subverted when the drums come in. The beat keeps being "turned around" as the two rhythms drift in and out of phase. Rast is a master at almost defining a steady meter/rhythm but not quite, as he mutates his patterns just enough to throw us off.

The three tracks making up "Modul 8_9" (which appears two other times) are extraordinary in that they show how a characteristic cell that is minimally a rhythmic pattern or interacting patterns can come alive when arranged.

The word "beautiful" cannot be avoided for "8_9 II" as the first two thirds of the track provide a gossamer bridge between the pattern reoccurrences, which then leads to "8_9 III" which is led by Rast playing cymbals very much like Vernel Fournier in Ahmad Jamal's early trio. The buildup is spellbinding as this last member of the set gets into a very, very deep groove.

The almost thirty minutes of the three 8_9 moduls either take forever or fly by because time stopped (or became irrelevant), and that is perhaps the point. Listening to this would be deliciously unbearable in a live setting since you might not know whether to open your arms to the infinite or bang your head, but maybe that is also the point.

Nik Bartsch's Mobile

Ritual Groove Music 1

Ronin Rhythm Records

2006 (Recorded 2000)

This record was recorded direct to two-track after a 36 hour Music Ritual at Blauer Saal, Zurich, so the band members must have been both exhausted and totally focused.

Don Li's alto saxophone stands out here for its haunting quality, its improvisatory nature and because it is the sole instance of a higher register reed in the entire set. Listening to this album last makes it seem almost out of place in retrospect, and perhaps its deletion in the later records was a conscious decision by Bartsch.

For the most part, the tracks sound spliced together, which only further enhances the trance-like effect the music can have. The album thus sounds like a show with terrific pacing, bringing the listener up and down by changing parameters such as overall pitch and speed of the figures.

Mobile's emphasis on the ritual side of "ritual groove music" is evident, but by no means distinct. Our old friend "Modul 11" makes its first (chronological) appearance here and it has a deep groove, admittedly ritualized by the repeating piano figure.

What is also clear is that drummer Rast is central to the proceedings—as the engine that both sets and drives the groove while never letting it get predictable.

The distance from this album to Stoa is not that great, and whatever caught ECM producer Manfred Eicher's ear is present from the beginning.

Tracks and Personnel

Stoa

Tracks: Modul 36; Modul 35; Modul 32; Modul 33; Modul 38_17.

Personnel: Nik Bartsch: piano, Fender Rhodes; Sha: contrabass and bass clarinet; Bjorn Meyer: bass; Kaspar Rast: drums; Andi Pupato: percussion.

AER

Tracks: Modul 29; Modul 16; Modul 18; Modul 20; Modul 26; Modul 8_11.

Personnel: Nik Bartsch: piano; Mats Eser: marimba, percussion; Sha: contrabass and bass clarinet; Kaspar Rast: drums.

REA

Tracks: Modul 27; Modul 22; Modul 18; Modul 26; Modul 23.

Personnel: Nik Bartsch: piano, Fender Rhodes; Andi Pupato: percussion, Kaspar Rast: drums; Bjorn Meyer: bass.

Live

Tracks: Modul 14; Modul 17; Modul 11; Modul 16; Modul 8_9; Modul 15.

Personnel: Nik Bartsch: piano, Fender Rhodes; Andi Pupato: percussion; Kaspar Rast: drums; Bjorn Meyer: bass.

Randori

Tracks: Modul 13; Modul 8_9 I; Modul 8_9 II; Modul 8_9 III; Modul 10; Modul 13; Modul 14; Modul 11; Modul 15_9.

Personnel: Nik Bartsch: piano, Fender Rhodes, drums; Kaspar Rast: drums, Bjorn Meyer: bass; Andi Pupato: shaker, Indian bells.

Hishiryo

Tracks: Modul 8_9; Modul 13 I; Modul 14; Modul 4; Modul TM; Modul 5; Modul 6; Modul 11.

Personnel: Nik Bartsch: piano, percussion.

Ritual Groove Music

Tracks: Modul 5; Modul 11; Modul 4; Modul 12; Modul 4 II; Modul 2; Modul 12 II.

Personnel: Nik Bartsch: piano; Kaspar Rast: drums; Don Li: bass clarinet, alto saxophone; Mats Eser: marimba, percussion.

Photo Credit

Dragan Tasic

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