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Nik Bartsch: Nik Bartsch's Ronin: Llyria

John Kelman By

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Nik Bärtsch's Ronin
Llyrìa
ECM Records
2010

Few artists have emerged in recent times with so unique and fully-formed a voice as pianist Nik Bärtsch. Living largely, as he does, in the jazz world—especially since coming to ECM in 2006 with Stoa, after years foundation-setting and groundbreaking work in his native Switzerland, honing the distinctive blend of minimalist repetition, interlocking polyrhythms and compelling grooves that he's dubbed "Zen Funk" and "Ritual Groove" on a series of independent releases—the most unusual aspect to Bärtsch's music is its distinct lack of attention to overt soloing, something that has always seemed fundamental to the genre, even in its most structured environs. Instead, the members of Ronin—now a decade old and, since Stoa, with a completely stable line-up—interpret in and around the many nooks and crannies left by Bärtsch's rigorous yet paradoxically open-ended compositions; pieces that, with titles no more descriptive than the word "Modul" and a number, do nothing to provide any advance suggestion of just how his music might sound.

With a style based on repetition and a kind of gradual but inevitable unfolding and evolution, it's even more remarkable that Bärtsch's music continues to evolve into new territory. In lesser hands, the pianist's concept would, after more than a decade of heavy exploration, begin to tire and fail; in Bärtsch's hands, however, each successive Ronin album reveals more depth and more breadth to his rather singular concept, and Llyrìa is no exception. If anything, it's a somewhat more radical departure from the slightly more predictable growth of Holon, the group's outstanding 2008 follow-up to Stoa that, like Llyrìa, came on the heels of extensive international touring and the group's ongoing workshop/concert residency at a Zürich club for the past six years.

Despite there being no shortage of the visceral yet complex grooves that have defined Ronin's music since inception—thanks, in particular, to bassist Björn Meyer's unshakable but elastic anchor, and the sometimes spare but always empathic interplay between drummer Kaspar Rast and percussionist Andi Pupato— Llyrìa breathes more effortlessly than any of the group's previous discs, and gives space (always an active sixth member of the group) an even more dominant role. Bärtsch comes closest to leaving space for overt soloing this time around, in particular for reedman Sha, who continues to make the bass clarinet his main axe, though it's on alto sax that he actually comes closest to dominating the middle section of Llyrìa's opener, "Modul 48," which finds Ronin at its most relaxed, despite Bärtsch's ever-present twisting and turning of the pulse, around a simple, ascending and descending nine-note pattern.

What is, perhaps, most important about Llyrìa is that the touchstones that have so stringently defined the group can now be dispensed with, as Bärtsch's vernacular has become an entity distinct and separate from its multifaceted references. Even the unrelenting repetition of an earlier version of "Modul 4," from the pianist's solo album, Hishiryō (Tonus, 2002), is freed up here; raised in key, and with greater contrapuntal complexity, Bärtsch's cascading lines and Meyer's repeating bass pattern provide the foundation for Rast and Pupato to push and pull the pulse, building to an early climax that releases into a middle section where it becomes nearly impossible to discern where form ends and freedom begins.

Llyrìa also demonstrates the pianist's increasing compositional skill in narrative form; each Modul possessing its own, but when experienced as a whole, creating a captivating hour-long suite that seems almost to flow by in an instant, as if time itself has been suspended, despite a seemingly infinite number of memorable melodic fragments, rhythmic devices and harmonic movements both vertical and horizontal, all interlocking in a relentlessly shifting landscape. It's hard to think of a group and a concept that just keeps getting better with each successive record, but on Llyrìa, Bärtsch—and the now absolutely synchronous Ronin—continues to find new and consistently intriguing ways to expand the purview of a concept which, clearly mistakenly, seemed destined for a finite shelf life.

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

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

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