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Nik Bartsch's Ronin: Live

Dan McClenaghan By

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Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch and his group Ronin joined the ECM Records roster in 2006 with their label debut, Stoa. Since then they have produced a new ECM set every two years, with Holon (2008), Llyría (2010), and now their first recorded-in-concert set for the label, the double-disc Live.

Ronin's music has been called Zen Funk, ritual groove music, and mechanistic minimalism. Live proves the group is just as tight onstage as it is in the studio. This is a band that gets into a groove and won't let go, setting up—with extended repetition of three, four or five-note riffs and layered rhythms—huge tension, released (finally) by explosive, rock energy bursts that settle back into new momentums, new repeated motifs, new layers.

The collective band sound has a sharp edge— Bärtsch's piano often has a metallic sheen. Bassist Bjørn Meyer locks hard into sometimes loping, sometimes hyper-tight runs. And Sha, the band's reedman—who, in a more standard ensemble might be the lead melodic voice—sets up deep low moans on the contrabass clarinet that sound like the atomic power source of a starship approaching a leap across interstellar space, while drummer Kasper Rast and percussionist Andi Pupato drive the sub-nuclear energy sources serving the ship's mechanical components.

Not that there aren't moment's a tranquility and introspection. "Modul 45" features moments of pianistic delicacy, interspersed with percussive bombast behind the anguished wailing of Sha's alto saxophone, capped off with gathering, end-of-the-world seismic drum rumble.

"Modul 35," heard originally on Stoa, is one of the group's most distinctive tunes. Opening here with the same crisp, lonely, percussive tinkling, it then surges with a burst of collective energy, riding the rubbery bounce and pop of Meyer's powerhouse bass, and then shifting into what sounds like an immersion into a dark, dystopian urban world full of danger and dread, before the band gels back into a rhythmic momentum.

Live was recorded around the world, in Tokyo, Amsterdam, Wien, Lorrach, Liepzig, Mannheim, Gateshead and Salzau, between 2009 and 2011. Different venues, the same tight precision. "Modul 41_17" opens the recording, with a lively bass solo. It's fitting intro, because Meyer is moving on, handing Ronin's bass chair to relative newcomer Thomy Jordi, who is featured on the last tune of set, "Modul 55." There is a sense of calmness, an almost pastoral serenity to the sound on this single offering, as Nik Bärtsch's Ronin transitions from a ten-year Meyer tenure, to bring in the component of a fresh perspective.

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