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Nik Bartsch: Rhythmically Dancing Around Fugato Fires

Ian Patterson By

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Hungarian composer and pianist Béla Bartók once said, "In art there are only fast or slow developments. Essentially it is a matter of evolution, not revolution." Pianist and composer Nik Bärtsch would be the first to recognize that he is no revolutionary, as his aesthetic vision draws inspiration from multiple sources, ranging from 20th century classical music to funk, and from Japanese ritual music to minimalism. The distillation of all these sounds results in a music that invites meditation and at the same time urges you to move to the groove—something of a feat, it has to be said. Whether or not Bärtsch's group, Ronin, has evolved quickly or slowly in its first decade of existence is a relative matter, but evolve it most certainly has. An organism that began life as a trio at the beginning of the decade, Ronin soon became a quartet and then a quintet. Yet despite the addition of musicians over the years, the band seems to be heading towards a reduction in sound.

On Llyrìa (ECM, 2010), there is less of the obvious groove that characterized the band's previous ECM recordings. The band sounds looser, though the music remains notated for the most part. In the past, if the band used rhythm to accomplish melodic functions, here the emphasis is more on melodic development; a greater lyricism pervades the compositions. The increased space in the structures allows more room for reed man Sha to assert his presence, though there is less of a role for the contrabass and more opportunity for the alto saxophone to color Bärtsch's "Moduls." This greater emphasis on space and the resultant new sounds that occupy these spaces has much to do with Bärtsch's interest in architecture and dramaturgy— the construction of spaces.

That the music has evolved, rather than taken a radical turn, is due to the constant refusal of Bärtsch and his colleagues to let the music gather dust. Ronin's regular Monday night concert at its club in Zurich is much more than just a gig. Here, since 2004, the band has worked on the music, experimenting and continually seeking the musical growth that comes from deepening empathy and common goals. The five musicians of Ronin are, as Bärtsch states, servants of this music.

All About Jazz: Did Llyrìa turn out the way you envisaged it when the music first started coming into your head?

Nik Bärtsch: In a way it turned out like we intended because as a group we made a new step in performing together. For me, as a composer, I never know how it will turn out in the end, but the dramaturgy of the pieces when I develop them at home can change with the band, and it's always a surprise how the band can handle the compositions.

In the studio, it takes a lot of time working on it together with the producer Manfred Eicher. It's something we have prepared very carefully, but everything changes and surprises us. It happens because everyone has the will and the tradition to focus and concentrate but also to outfox ourselves. We went into the studio a day early to have a whole day of preparation, to check all the mics, all the details, and that helped very much to create a warmer band sound in general. I'm very happy with the way it turned out.

AAJ: You mention the band surprising you, and each other. How much can Manfred Eicher surprise you all in the studio?

NB: Manfred is always surprising. His enormous experience, in my opinion, does not influence him to do what he knows and what he likes. He uses his experience to always create new and surprising combinations. He once told me that it is important that the band comes really prepared with a present concept, and well rehearsed. From then on, you can really create the now—the specific take that really convinces everybody. It maybe also has some mistakes or surprises in it, and for this he is an enormously careful and intense listener. He gives very precise feedback, not only in terms of the details of the composition but also in terms of the mood of the piece and the mood of the band in the studio. I think that's exactly what a producer, in the musical sense, is all about.

He puts all his energy into the production process. For me, it is astonishing how someone with such huge experience can concentrate so much on the now and also enjoy the now, and be challenged when the now does not happen. He does not think he knows everything. That's something which inspires me very much.

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