The Upshot: An album with a resonance outside of the jazz atmosphere, but without the scent of any compromise whatsoever.
BY MICHAEL TOLAND
Pianist Nik Bartsch occupies a unique spot in music. The Swiss bandleader/composer’s work with his long-running band Ronin is jazzy, but not quite jazz; heavily influenced by contemporary classical music, but not that, either; subtly funky, but definitely not funk. Bartsch calls it “ritual groove music,” which is a pretty open-ended way to describe anything. Suffice to say that Bartsch’s work makes a virtue of not fitting under an umbrella, especially on Ronin’s eight album Awase.
Since 2011’s Live, the band has undergone some changes: bassist Björn Meyer left, his successor Thomy Jordi joined, and percussionist Andy Prepato quit and was not replaced. Stripped down to a quartet, Ronin becomes tighter, more invested in ensemble playing than moving the musicians through featured roles. Jordi is a less flamboyant player than Meyer, concentrating on the grooves, rather than being a lead instrument. Woodwinds player Sha often sits in front, but he’s not soloing so much as carrying the melody. Drummer Kaspar Rast stays mostly in the pocket, pulling the rhythms back and maintaining a steady point for the rest to ride.
Bartsch himself also eases back on lead breaks and integrates his craft more keenly into the ensemble. It’s an approach that well suits his writing. Drawing inspiration from his melodies’ repetition equally from tribal sources and classical minimalism, Bartsch paints pictures with well-chosen notes and smart deployment of his musicians’ virtues. Bartsch and Jordi often double up the bass parts, but the constant movement keeps the bottom from getting heavy. The pianist then sets up a lattice of notes for Sha to hang his clarinet and sax lines on, so both can weave their bits around the melodies.
Despite all the instrumental movement, however, the arrangements never become lush or cluttered. Outside of their instrumental and compositional facilities, the musicians understand the use of space as a chief virtue. That’s especially important on the longer pieces – “Modul 36” (a Ronin staple first recorded on 2006’s Stoa) and the nearly nineteen-minute “Modul 58” maintain interest as much on their ability to relax and breathe as on their intertwined melody lines. Even a shorter piece as dense as “Modul 34” lets air into the arrangement, making it lighter than its packed space would lead you to expect.
Unafraid to show their skills, yet decidedly unflashy, Bartsch and his musicians put all of their energy into supporting the tunes themselves, rather than set up showcases. That makes Awase an album with a resonance outside of the jazz atmosphere, but without the scent of any compromise whatsoever. No mean feat, and one that helps make Ronin its own distinctive beast.
DOWNLOAD: “Modul 58,” “Modul 34,” “Modul 36”