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Nik Bartsch's Ronin: Stoa

Chris May By

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From out of nowhere, Switzerland—best known in the jazz community for hosting the increasingly irrelevant Montreux Jazz Festival, whose headliners for 2006 include Simply Red, Solomon Burke, Deep Purple, Sting and Bryan Adams—seems suddenly to be turning out some seriously intrepid and innovative young players.

In the space of a few weeks, we've been introduced, first, to twin brothers Andreas and Matthias Pichler, the drum and bass wunderteam featured on Austrian guitar genius Wolfgang Muthspiel's heartachingly beautiful Bright Side. And, now, several Alpine ranges, if not an entire planet away, we meet pianist and composer Nik Bärtsch and his Zurich-based band, Ronin.

Stoa, Ronin's debut, is the album James Brown might have made if he'd appointed Steve Reich musical director of the Famous Flames, though without the satin cape and the extremes of primal emotion. It's minimalism, Jim, but not as we know it: simultaneously cerebral and on the good foot.

Bärtsch calls the music "Zen-funk," but a more useful description is perhaps "visceral minimalism." Bärtsch subscribes to minimalism's launch mission to explore the Einsteinian deep space of music-as-math, shuffling and stacking a deck of pre-composed melodic modules and intricately interlocking rhythms, but humanises the astro science with earthy funk-inspired bass ostinatos and kick-ass drums.

Remarkably, pretty well every sound we hear has been scored, right down to the smallest detail, even including Kaspar Rast's drums, which sound giddily spontaneous (Rast and Bärtsch have been playing together since they were twelve, which explains some of it). All the music is created in real time (Bärtsch created the band primarily to play live), with no loops and no overdubs. It's digital-age music performed with analog sensibility.

Sometimes Ronin sound like a through-composed Famous Flames or Family Stone, sometimes like Terry Riley at his mindfucking cross-rhythmic best, and at others like the Dave Brubeck Quartet locked in tight on a percussive Time Further Out groove, with Rast the emphatic punctuating counterpoint to Bärtsch's primitif riffs.

Throw in some Satie, an introductory two-minute nod to the Necks, some Japanese taiko ritual music and a little syncopated Chopin, and you have... well, not jazz, maybe, but something very special.

Visit Nik Bärtsch on the web.


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

Personnel: Nik B

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


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