Nik Bärtsch's Ronin
October 24, 2018
"Zen Funk." That's how Nik Bärtsch describes his music. "Zen:" the seeking of true enlightenment, often through meditation. "Funk:" a highly rhythmic, syncopated form of music. Zen Funk, yeah, that's it. The funk ranges from subtle to structural to urgent. The repetitive nature of the funk lines can be trance-inducing, leading to a meditative state which, of course, leads to true enlightenment.
Wednesday night, Nik Bärtsch brought his band Ronin to Dazzle for an evening of enlightening funk. This wasn't punch-you-in-the-gut, throw-your-neck-out-of-joint funk that you might get with James Brown
or, more recently, a band like Lettuce
. This is much more subtle, more hypnotic, more ethereal. Urgent, yet laid back.
Ronin tunes can extend well past the three to five minute mark of many songs. Ronin can often journey into the 15 to 20 minute range. Wednesday night, many pieces started slow and gradually built to one or more climaxes with many detours and excursions along the way. Several of these tunes came out of the Swiss swamp, cool and slow with a deadly precision, with time signatures strange and hard to master. Some call it heavenly in its brilliance. Others mean and rueful of the Western dream. Soft driving slow, like some new language. ("The WASP; Texas Radio and the Big Beat.") The Doors never sounded like this. But that particular description seems to fit Ronin's music.
Bärtsch and his compatriots are from Switzerland. The land of precision. If you ever travel on a Swiss train, beware. If you arrive at your platform four minutes before your scheduled departure and there's a train on the track, don't get on! Chances are it will depart a minute later. Two minutes after that your train will arrive and depart a minute later. The trains run on time. They are precise. Ronin is precise. These cats have been playing together for some time and it shows. Dead stops after 10 minutes or so of jamming, telepathic communication during the tunes, continual ebbs and flows as if orchestrated by a single organism. Precise meditation.
While sometimes repetitive, the music nonetheless commanded attention. The gradual, yet, ever evolving song structures balanced out the repetition and the use of unusual meters heightened both the tension and the interest. The band played in 5/4 time and 7/4 time and some indecipherable time signatures and only occasionally lapsed into a pedestrian 4/4 beat.
Bärtsch is the pianist in the group. He's not satisfied with the standard 88 keys on the keyboard. He would often reach into the piano and pluck some strings with one hand while playing the keys with his other hand. Sometimes he would pluck strings he wasn't playing with the keys and sometimes he'd grab the strings the keys were hitting making for kind of a thump or a twang, sounds usually not associated with a piano. He, as well as the other members, would often lay down a repetitious figure that would sometimes continue for several minutes or, more often, gradually morph as the song developed. Wednesday night he had a classic Rhodes electric piano set up at a 90 degree angle to the grand piano. He never played the Rhodes exclusively, but sometimes he had his right hand on the Rhodes' keys and his left on the grand. Thomy Jordi
on bass laid down the solid foundation throughout the evening. Sometimes repetitive, invoking the trance-meditative state, sometimes more fluid and ever-changing. He always set the mood and it was often brooding yet somehow exhilarating. Kaspar Rast
on the drums was a master of furious understatement. His constant economy of motion belied the intensity of his playing. He had dual snare drums in his kit and occasionally he would strike both simultaneously for extra emphasis, but it was so quick as to be almost invisible to the naked eye. Those double snare shots gave the music an edge and declared that this was music with substance and not a mere background soundtrack. Reed man Sha
switched between bass clarinet and alto sax. The bass clarinet, in particular, drove home the low, minor, brooding nature of many of the tunes and often created an especially menacing sound. His staccato chirps helped to emphasize the understated funk that prevailed throughout the evening.
The appearance of Bärtsch's Ronin was part of a series of ECM artists presented by Dazzle during October. The ECM record label, headed by Manfred Eicher
, is nearly 50 years old now. Early in its lifetime, it established an exclusive and immediately identifiable aesthetic, often quiet and contemplative, sometimes lively, but always extremely tasteful and cerebral. It was immediately lumped into the "jazz" category despite a decided lack of swing (most of the time). The improvisational nature of the music no doubt accounted for the jazz classification. Many of the original ECM artists have moved on, retired or are no longer available, but Eicher continues to find new talent. Bärtsch may not be brand new, having released around a dozen albums by now, but he is still vital, still recording and still touring. Ronin's music fits neatly into the long arc of ECM's music even hearkening back to 1974's Love, Love
by Julian Priester
, but at the same time advancing the state of ECM's art.