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Live Reviews

Punkt Festival 2008: Day 2-3

By Published: September 7, 2008
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Nik Bartsch's Ronin

While Nik Bartsch has been exploring what he calls Zen Funk or Ritual Groove Music since the turn of the decade with a series of independently released albums, it's only been with the international exposure of Stoa (2007) and Holon (2008), both released on ECM, that the Swiss pianist and his group Ronin has received a remarkable upsurge of critical and popular acclaim. The group released a live album, Live (Ronin Records, 2006)—with bassist Bjorn Meyer, drummer Kaspar Rast and percussionist Andy Pupato but without reedman Sha— but a lot has happened since that time.

There's a confidence and looseness that makes what Ronin does—a compelling mix of Steve Reich-like minimalism with a small, rhythm section-based ensemble that grooves as hard as it is hypnotic—far more spontaneous. Solos don't figure much into what Ronin does, although everyone's playing commands the kind of attention that makes delineated soloing largely superfluous. Instead, it's the way the group weaves its way through Bartsch's oftentimes complex concepts, using nuance and understatement to create the variations that give the music both its sense of excitement and unpredictability, that makes for an experience that's both trance-inducing, in the best Zen Funk fashion, and demanding.

Punkt Festival 08 / Nik Bartsch's Ronin

More evident than on record was Bartsch's exploration of the inside of his piano on a consistent basis, as well as the addition of several percussion instruments around his piano that he hit with terrific energy when the spirit moved him. The performance of some older material but largely "Modul" pieces from Holon answered the other question—how did the group signal its way from one segment to another? The answer? A loud and regular "Ho!" from Bartsch, which put the rest of the group on notice that a change was about to come.

For a group that's been touring this material (though this is its first time to Norway), they all seem to be having as much fun playing it now as when they first put it together. Meyer, in particular, was clearly enjoying himself, a mobile contrast to the stationary Sha, who was most visually impressive (while always being sonically arresting) when playing the big contrabass clarinet. In keeping with the Zen part of the equation, Ronin has a wonderfully clean stage—everyone uses in-ear monitors so there are no clunky monitors cluttering up the stage—which made the stunning lighting all the more effective.

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Live Remix: Nils Petter Molvaer / Eivind Aarset / Jan Bang

It's hard to imagine how Bartsch's could be remixed, reimagined or improved upon, so rather than attempting to recreate the kinetic energy of Ronin, trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer, Eivind Aarset and Jan Bang didn't even try. While some of the pianist's repetitive parts were sampled, processed and put back out in radically altered form, and Bang took advantage of grabbing certain repeated percussion motifs, the remix was surprisingly abstract—hypnotic, in an entirely different kind of way.

Punkt Festival 08 / Nils Petter Molvaer

As Molvaer's only appearance at this year's Punkt, it's a shame the remix didn't last longer, or that he didn't take the material further into some of the rhythmic areas he's known for. Still, since the break-up of his group last year (touring, instead, with Aarset and drummer Audun Kleive, who was replaced by Bang here due to illness and who might have created a more groove-happy space), he's been experimenting even further, with apparently a lot of material in the can just waiting to be shaped into one or more releases. He's also been doing solo shows a lot more, which may explain the predisposition for his Mac notebook rather than his trumpet, which he played, but not enough.

Still, in recent work and on soundtracks documented on his recent Re-Vision (Sula, 2008), the trumpeter has proven himself a strong sonic conceptualist above and beyond his main axe and was as much a part of the aural collage as Aarset and Bang. It seemed at times, however, as though the group wasn't quite sure where it wanted to go, with the adventure ending almost unexpectedly. Still, the inherent chemistry between these three musicians, who have played together so much over the past years, meant that there was always a certain level of communication and simpatico that made this experiment, if not entirely successful, another one well worth hearing.

Tomorrow: Performances and remixes by Oynn Groven Myhren, Splashgirl, Arve Henriksen, Hakon Kornstad, Nils Okland, Jon Hasell's Maarifa Street, and J. Peter Schwalm.

Visit Gavin Bryars, Brian Eno, Jon Hassell, Jan Bang and Erik Honoré, Synnove S. Bjorset, Ase Teigland, J. Peter Schwalm, Sophie Clements, DJ Strangefruit, Nik Bartsch, Eivind Aarset, Nils Petter Molvaer and Punkt Festival on the web.

Photo Credits
Jan Hangeland (also at MySpace)

Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3

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