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Nik Bartsch's Ronin: Llyria

Dan McClenaghan By

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On Stoa (ECM Records, 2005), Nik Bärtsch's Ronin offered up music made with a clock-like precision. Zen Funk, Ritual Groove Music—take your pick of descriptive tags—was meted out by a machine-like ensemble, using repetition and reduction and space sparked by the leader's punctuating, crystalline piano notes underlain, a great deal of the time, by a bass/contrabass clarinet rumble that suggested a sinister gargantuan presence dwelling in the basement beneath the machinery.

Holon (ECM, 2008), the Swiss band's second recording for the German label, loosened some of the bolts on the machinery. The music still felt half human/half machine—like sounds made by science fiction cyborgs—but the human/organic side was asserting itself more. Sha, the group's reedman, shelved the ponderous (in a good sense of the word) contrabass clarinet for alto saxophone and regular bass clarinet, and the group's signature sound—still getting deep into repetition and grooves—opened up and breathed more, while keeping its trance-inducing qualities.

Where Holon was a small evolutionary step away from Stoa, Llyría takes a leap. "Modul 48," opens with the leader's chiming, singing single notes on the piano then drifts into a cool, near-orchestral sound as the ensemble breathes in, with a collective approach that is pastoral and pretty, more reminiscent of Jan Garbarek than Stoa.

"Modul 52" works more into the groove/repetition mode, with a slapping percussion and mesmerizing melody, and "Modul 55" blows into darker, music-from-the-shadows territory on Sha's bass clarinet, then brightens as the reedman shifts to a higher register, drawing the light in through a dark canopy.

"Modul 55" slows the momentum into a deliberate, meditative mood, highlighting a collective nature of this music that doesn't lend itself to dissection of individual contributions. Every sound fits in the concept of the collective whole—through-composed but with an increasingly organic flexibility. In pianist Bärtsch's words: "The band has to discover the right tension and suitable dramatic structure for the piece on the spur of the moment."

With Llyría, it sounds very much as if they've done just that.

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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