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Nik Bärtsch: Possibility in Paradox

Geno Thackara By

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Despite all the boundaries and borders we have in the world, I love to travel and to share things... often the sense of tradition is enormously inspiring. —Nik Bärtsch
Like the master-less samurai his primary band is named for, Nik Bärtsch forges a path and follows a code all his own. The pianist's music is best described by his own key phrases "ritual groove music" and "Zen funk," merging Eastern minimalist simplicity and patient trance with the interplay and communal aspect of jazz. It makes for a bundle of seeming contradictions: steadily repetitive and ever-changing, precise yet improvisational, highly cerebral and body-movingly catchy, it develops structures of sometimes breathtaking complexity often built from the simplest of blocks.

The wider world hasn't heard much of Ronin since 2012, a year that made a turning point as the band slimmed to a quartet and released the cracking Live (ECM, 2012) to cap off the previous chapter of its life. Nobody would accuse Bärtsch of standing still, but this band has simmered on the back burner behind other endeavors for a while: composing work for other ensembles, teaching a yearly music/aikido workshop, recording Continuum (ECM, 2016) with Ronin's more formally-focused acoustic counterpart Mobile, and maintaining a regular Monday-night live residency in home city Zurich that he and his bandmates have managed to keep going (when not on the road) since 2004.

"We never took a break. We're constantly working," Bärtsch explains during a highly pleasant Sunday-evening chat amidst preparations for a long-awaited return to the USA. "Most of the Monday shows of the last few years were played by Ronin, so we could really work on our repertoire and change a few old tracks. We have a wide range now of new tracks that we elaborated very much, and also old ones that we developed." His Swiss-accented English shows the thorough thoughtfulness and deliberation of someone practiced in meditation and martial arts, though some hints of excitement can't help coming through as he describes returning to the studio with producer and ECM label boss Manfred Eicher.

"It was on a good level, experimenting with the new material. We've never had such good preparation—this time we had a really good band flow, all very present, and also a joyful feeling playing the new pieces which are challenging sometimes. In the studio, this helped us a lot to play very relaxed and very together," he recalls. Since there's naturally such a deep connection between music and the physicality of aikido, it's only fitting that the philosophical style provided the title for Awase (ECM, 2018).

Bärtsch elaborates, "That means the way of blending, melting and moving together so that between your opponent and you, you don't know anymore who moves first. You can also say it's a dance. ... To bring it into our context onstage in a live performance, it also means you have no time to think. Your whole body kind of thinks and analyzes, and you react—not brainy, but like in sports or in all sorts of performance art, in this feeling of staying calm and present."

This has always been a central quality of both bands, of course, which is why the new Ronin unit took time finding a somewhat new chemistry since the abovementioned lineup shift. The versatile Thomy Jordi has an energetic funk-rooted feeling on bass distinct from that of the long-serving Bjorn Meyer. More disruptively for music so rhythmically intricate, percussionist Andi Pupato likewise left on friendly terms, leaving Kaspar Rast to serve as the sole anchor rather than half of a drum/percussion team.

As the band sees it, the disruption has been a liberation as much as a challenge: "As a quartet, we made a big step. Kaspar often says we somehow came back to jazz—not in the sense of playing more traditionally, but in the sense of having a lot of possibilities to work with the material. To take things away, to leave space, but also to go in and actually improvise more, to make variations and new inventions that respect the piece. This made for a lot of new impact and inspired us with a joyful sense in improvising.

"So this mix in the moment, for us, represents a lot the state where the band actually is with the four personalities," he summarizes. "The arrangements, the whole way of playing, it's changed a lot. Not in a negative or positive sense, but it's just something totally else. To have such a group feeling and enjoy so much freedom, it's really a high gift."

It's a gift well earned after so much painstaking work to experiment and find the right forms, especially since it's a process that never ends. After all, the compositions are modular enough to be adapted to quite various contexts—hence their untitled designation as numbered "Modul"s, as many listeners and confused discographers are aware. "The idea of a Modul usually that it has one basic important and clear idea that I brought into a structure and form that makes sense," he says.

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