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Nik Bartsch's Ronin: Stoa

Budd Kopman By

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What is this music? What genre does it inhabit? What label best suits it? Nik Bärtsch himself calls it Zen-funk, and it easily could fit the trance label, but only at times. Reichian or Glassian minimalism springs to mind, but again only at times. Calling it progressive rock would be a gigantic stretch. Is it jazz, whatever that means to you? Not if jazz requires improvisation or shuns through-composed music. Yet it has the feel of jazz, particularly in the drumming of Kaspar Rast (who has been Bärtsch's musical partner for 25 years) and the almost unbearable excitement that the music produces.

Stoa is none of these things and all of them simultaneously, and that is what makes it some of the most subversive and enjoyable music I have heard in quite a while. In the end it does not matter where you put it, and Bärtsch would be happy to have created his own, unnamable genre—call it Ronin-esque. To paraphrase Bärtsch, who quotes from Thomas Preston on his web site, a ronin is a solitary samurai who is not part of any clan. Despised and yet feared by everyone, the ronin must be on constant guard, no matter how masterful he is. However, a ronin who recognizes that he is free can explore the world and enlighten himself.

Bärtsch studied jazz first and then moved toward classical composition. He formed Ronin to be able to play more powerful music in a live setting where he could work out his ideas. His music is made up of small cells that mutate through the course of each so-called "Modul," five of which comprise the material. Often consisting of phrases with odd lengths or cross-rhythms that go in and out of phase, each composition is meticulously assembled. The tunes rely heavily on repetition but never get boring, rather pulling the listener closer and closer, developing a trance feel, only to shift out of it at just the right moment. Sections will abruptly end and then start up in a new tonal area.

The feeling of development within each piece is inescapable, along with a precision that is remarkable because the music sounds improvised and free, when in fact it is not most of the time. Part of the fun is trying to try to sense which side the music of the moment is on. The material is not static or fixed, however, and sections have changed through performance.

Time can be extremely deceptive as you get hooked into the mutating details and a fifteen-minute piece is over before you realize it. With no melodies and virtually no harmony, but with plenty of constantly internally clashing rhythm, this music's motivic development pushes you one moment and pulls the next. Whether or not you would call it jazz, its kaleidoscopic nature and simple complexity is riveting. Fabulous.

Visit Nik Bärtsch on the web.

Track Listing: Modul 36; Modul 35; Modul 32; Modul 33; Modul 38_17.

Personnel: Nik Bärtsch: piano; Sha: bass and contrabass clarinets, alto saxophone; Björn Meyer: bass; Kaspar Rast: drums; Andi Pupato: percussion.

Title: Stoa | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: ECM Records

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