The timing couldn't have been better. Following up on the stunning double-CD live outing, Nik Bärtsch's Ronin Live (ECM, 2012), Bärtsch returns with his acoustic group, Mobile, for Continuum. With clarinetist Sha and drummer Kaspar Rast crossing over from Ronin, a new addition, Nicolas Stocker, on drums and percussion completes the core quartet. A string quintet augments three of the eight tracks, infusing a multiplicity of effects in the process.
Mobile has been around for almost twenty years now with the Swiss pianist and composer, Rast and Ska as original members. They first released Aer (Tonus Music) in 2004 and there began the realization of Bärtsch's unique vision of stylistically punctuating formalized musical structures while incorporating cross-cultural and cross-genre influences. The result has been music that is both disciplined and elastic with a literate quality and mesmerizing beat.
"Modul 29_14" opens quietly; a repetitive pattern of notes and chords that eventually goes to a funky, but similarly repetitive mode. In stark contrast, "Modul 12" is a minimal piece dominated by piano and brushes, the snare sometimes working against silence. "Modul 18" introduces the strings, though in a very subdued manner that adds a shadowy feeling rather than an obvious classical influence. Bärtsch flashes keyboard brilliance on "Modul 5," a lightning fast cascade of notes that quickly flickers out at its conclusion. The strings return on "Modul 60," this time more clearly a chamber piece with a theatrical feel. The long "Modul 44" offers a similar ambience but here, the tremolo of the strings builds and adds more tension as the piece progresses.
Mobile remains a vehicle well suited to Bärtsch's sophisticated approach to composing and arranging. There is less of the Asian influences that inspired some of Bärtsch's earlier work with the group, but Mobile remains an inclusive amalgam of progressive jazz and minimalism. Without dominating the pieces in which they appear, the strings add something new to that pallet, reflecting Bärtsch's interest in György Ligeti and other classical composers. With its variety of styles, Continuum is the best of Mobile's albums to date, despite the very high bar set from the beginning.