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Nik Bartsch's Ronin: Llyria

Chris May By

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Pianist Nik Bärtsch's Ronin has traveled a long way since its formation in 2001, through its early albums on Ronin Rhythm Records, its signing with ECM, and the three discs that label has so far released. Mid-decade, the Swiss band was forging its reputation with a relentlessly beat-centric style which Bärtsch dubbed "Zen funk" and "ritual groove music"—a blend of minimalism and James Brown which gave P-funkster George Clinton's maxim "free your ass and your mind will follow" a new millennial spin. The beats are still present, but are tempered now by other dimensions.

The three ECM discs—Llyrìa follows Stoa (2006) and Holon (2008)—have tracked Ronin's music as, via a series of incremental changes, it has evolved into something richer in content. With Llyrìa, standalone melodic top lines—that is, melodies not generated by the layering of instruments—show signs of becoming almost as important as uplifting rhythms. And throughout the suite of tunes, Bärtsch demonstrates a deeper concern with the nuances of light and shade. The new emphases are welcome: even the most dedicated trance junkies can only surrender to repetitive rhythms, however sophisticated their execution, for a finite length of time, without being buried by them—something which Bärtsch, who intends his music as something other than narcotic, would find abhorrent.

What has remained constant throughout this evolution is Bärtsch's insistence on through-composition: practically every note Ronin plays has been written in advance, with only subtle interpretive deviations permitted to the musicians. We have to take Bärtsch's word for this, because the performances of drummer Kaspar Rast and reed player Sha, in particular, frequently sound so of-the-moment that you'd never guess they're not improvised.

The 2010 edition of Ronin's music is well described by the title of this album. The llyria is a recently discovered luminescent creature of the deep ocean. The opening track, "Modul 48," captures the picture as vividly as any hi-tech deepwater camera, as exquisite little melodic fragments drift in and out of the frame. Passages like this reoccur throughout the disc. So too, rather less frequently, do the ensemble polyrhythms of the band's first releases—"Modul 52" and "Modul 4" keep the faith and will give Ronin's longtime followers a familiar shot in the arm.

Ronin's growth has been made possible as much by the group's stability as it has by Bärtsch's inquiring aesthetic. In October 2010, the band will play its 300th hometown performance, at the Zurich club where it has maintained a Monday night residency since 2004. Such commitment, to each other and to the demands of live performance, makes for a continuing engine of change. Ronin may have traveled a long way since 2001, but it's a near certainty that the journey is far from finished.

Track Listing: Modul 48; Modul 52; Modul 55; Modul 47; Modul 53; Modul 51; Modul 49_44.

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

Title: Llyria | Year Released: 2010 | Record Label: ECM Records

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