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Nik Bartsch's Ronin: Holon

Budd Kopman By

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With the release of Stoa (ECM, 2006), pianist Nik Bärtsch and his band Ronin caused a tsunami of words to be written that attempted to describe what this music was and why it evoked such strong emotions. Certainly, the shock of the new had something to do with it. Upon reflection, however, the key things turned out to be a deep funkiness united with minimalist repetition and phase-shifting polyrhythms, played with Zen-like concentration. In other words, this new sound was, paradoxically, the sum of familiars.

The ecstatically mesmerizing Holon finds Bärtsch and Ronin two years removed from the recording of Stoa, and carrying with it all of the issues of a sophomore album, the main one being listener expectations, which were naturally exceeding high.

It turns out, however, that Stoa did not appear ex nihilo but rather, as The Road To Stoa documents, that Bärtsch had been honing this specific musico-philosophic aesthetic since at least the year 2000. In particular, Live (Ronin Rhythm Records, 2006), recorded in 2002, provides the key that links Holon to Stoa.

As the YouTube clips here and here show, Ronin is a real band that takes over a performance space as strongly as any. Stoa was so exciting because of the drama built into the moduls that made it sound spontaneous. Holon is a studio example of everything that Bärtsch and the band has learned through playing; they have internalized the aesthetic and now improvise within it. Bärtsch speaks about how the band has become a "musical biosystem" that acts and reacts almost instantaneously.

Holon begins at the level of Stoa, adding a subtle flexibility and lithe looseness to the music that only increases its impact. If Holon is a first introduction to Ronin's music, be prepared for the ride of your life.

Everyone in the band inputs an increasing flexibility. Drummer Kaspar Rast is again central to the sound since he and Bärstch (now solely on acoustic piano) have been together for decades. Bassist Björn Meyer openly improvises much more as does reedman Sha, now adding alto saxophone.

The album opens with a dark "Modul 42" which contains a floating Sha sax line, and then moves to the magnificent "Modul 41_17," which is almost fifteen minutes long. As in Indian music, which also has a meditative ecstatic quality, the piece gives no clues as to how long it will be. Using an audible theme that is presented, developed, sped up and re-instrumented as the piece progresses, each player can be heard improvising within the huge dramatic arch. The time flies, the listener is almost forced to move and is ultimately left changed forever.

The other pieces are also very strong, particularly Moduls 44 and 45, but the cumulative impact of Holon is devastatingly complete, with a new aural world enveloping the listener.

Track Listing: Modul 42; Modul 41_17; Modul 39_8; Modul 46; Modul 45; Modul 44.

Personnel: Nik Bärtsch: piano; Sha: bass and contrabass clarinets, alto saxophone; Björn Meyer: bass; Kaspar Rast: drums; Andi Pupato: percussion.

Title: Holon | Year Released: 2008 | Record Label: ECM Records


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