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Nik Bartsch's Ronin at Joe's Pub, NYC

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In the end, regardless of any intellectual complexity or attentive rigor underpinning it, music and its performance are all about direct emotional communication with the listener.
Nik Bartsch's Ronin at Joe's Pub, NYC
Joe's Pub
New York City, New York
March 5, 2008

Simple complexity, complex simplicity; intellectual control, emotional abandon; individual details, organic wholeness; deep, deep bottom, floating highs; irresistible funky groove, phase-shifting rhythmic interaction; dramatic storytelling, propulsive drive; just a band, an artistic entity.

Nik Bartsch's Ronin, and his music, is all of the above and much, much more. Having first played at Joe's Pub on July 3, 2007 (which I unfortunately just could not attend), presenting the music of Stoa (ECM, 2006), the band returned triumphant to a highly expectant and excited full house presenting music from their latest album Holon (ECM, 2008). From the first notes, the club became a single Ronin/audience organism.

The stage was loaded with equipment, much of it belonging to percussionist Andi Pupato. Keyboardist Bartsch had a piano and Fender Rhodes stage left; reedman Sha an alto saxophone, bass clarinet and an enormous contrabass clarinet; six-string bassist Bjorn Meyer was tucked in the back; and drummer Kaspar Rast's full drum set completed things stage right. The visual component was an important part of package, as everyone was dressed in black or grey, the band's aesthetic taking it cue from Bartsch's Zen/samurai attitude.

As is many times the case, the live sound was not as clear as on the record, particularly the bass lines and Sha's figures when the band had a full head of steam. Despite the less than ideal balance, hearing Ronin live was a crucial reminder that this is music to be performed in real time and that energy flows from the band to the audience and back—these guys are, after all, real, live musicians. Bartsch and Rast maintained close eye contact and were locked tightly. Pupato also watched Bartsch closely though always in motion since he played many different instruments sequentially. Meyer continually caught the listener's eye because he moved the most in response to the rhythm, at times looking like he was trying to leave his body.

Familiarity with Stoa or Holon only increased the pleasure of, and deepened the immersion in, the music. Observing the rhythmic cell's set-up at the opening of a piece, and then hearing its interaction with other cells which create the phase pulsing, was an extremely satisfying if not essential part of the Ronin experience. The dramatic arch of the pieces developed in the same manner as the recorded versions, indicating an internalized arrangement, the sections of which were cued both visually and orally.

Art is the effort by the artist to create a work that presents his comprehensive vision by including only its essentials and then organizing them into an integrated whole. There must be a purpose to each included detail, each working with the others to create the work's identity. Such complete and organic wholeness is true of a great painting, novel or piece of music. The artist's audience then responds emotionally to his creation, positively or negatively, depending on whether the audience is in sync with the artist's viewpoint.

Bartsch's music cannot really be separated from Ronin the band. Compositionally, the music is high art since the goal is clearly defined: everything extraneous has been rigorously pruned away. The band, in turn, is just as highly honed, having internalized Bartsch's aesthetic and methodology to the point where each member can improvise within the framework. One wrong move and the rhythmic complexity that supports the dramatic structure would collapse into the merely funky, a prominent groove detracting from rather than supporting the overall design. That the finely-tuned organism never came undone is a testament to the steely will and complete concentration of the band. Yet to a man, they were having fun, as attested by the many broad smiles of Bartsch when the music took flight, and the leader's response, naturally, was picked up by the audience.

In the end, regardless of any intellectual complexity or attentive rigor underpinning it, music and its performance are all about direct emotional communication with the listener. In any of the pieces, when a peak was reached, and each player's individual contribution meshed with everyone else's, the full power of Ronin engulfed the audience. Music that was extremely abstract, with very little in the way of melody or harmony, simply came alive, reached out and grabbed us.

The audience did not want the show to end, and a measure of Ronin's popularity was evidenced in the encore, started by Pupato's distinctive rhythm with a hand cymbal. Many people responded with claps, knowing instantly that the piece was from Stoa, if not that its title was "Modul 35."


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