The first time I heard a Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin track was in one of Sid Smith’s (always enjoyable) podcasts. I was working on something, casually listening to Sid’s selection in the background. At first the Ronin track made little impression, it seemed rather repetitive and harmonically bland. Gradually, though, it began to tug at my attention: what seemed like a simple repetitive rhythm revealed itself as a rather intriguing, addictive cross-current of rhythms, evolving almost imperceptibly into new intricate yet fascinating patterns, always building tension, working towards an ever more gripping finale. I was hooked.
I’ve been hooked ever since.
Last year, at Kings Place in London, I was able to hear the band live for the first time (and to thank Sid personally for introducing me to this music). It was a magical evening. This was music full of delectable contradictions: incredibly precise, yet feeling open and free; repetitive but always taking on new, exciting shapes; simple and extraordinarily complex; intellectual yet earthy and grounded.
Some of the magic of that live sound has thankfully been captured in this new live album.
As thejazzbreakfast say:-
The Swiss pianist Nik Bartsch has been leading his band Ronin for over a decade. A quintet since 2006, the band has made three studio albums for ECM and now comes this double live album. In all that time there has been just one change of personnel. Original electric bassist Bjorn Mayer was replaced by Thomy Jordi last year, and he joined Bartsch on piano and Fender Rhodes, Sha on bass clarinets and alto saxophone, Kaspar Rast on drums and Andi Pupato on percussion.
For anyone who has been to a Ronin concert, this goes a long way to recreating the euphoric enjoyment that it instills; for those who have never witnessed the band live, it will give you as good a taste as you could expect to get without actually being there.
It’s extraordinary that music that has to be this disciplined for its effect – tightly interwoven rhythms, exactingly timed exchanges – can also sound so spontaneous and, in a strange way, loose.
Jeff Dayton-Johnson, in allaboutjazz explains why this music is so engrossing:-
Bärtsch … deploys all kinds of more or less conventional syncopational strategies, but he also uses interlocking rhythms to challenge our very certitude about where the ground is upon which we should stand. Nowhere is this more clear, perhaps, than in the opening moments of “Modul 17,” where a chiming, two-note figure that sounds like a xylophone is quickly surrounded by longer rhythmic figures. As with interlocking African percussion music, at some point the figures of different length realign; it’s a mathematical process that sounds anything but abstract in practice.
As you listen, the music offers you several choices of a rhythmic ground (do I choose the 2/4, 3/4, 6/8 or other rhythm as the “true” meter of the composition?), in relation to which the other meters stand as potential alternatives or as baroque embellishments. You’re not committed to your choice of meter—you can “switch” midstream and it feels a little like jumping from one to another of the rings of Saturn. The effect is liberating.
The last word in this short piece must, of course, go to Sid Smith, writing in BBC Music:-
Ronin’s music has a propulsive volatility that’s forever galloping forward as their polyrhythmic jigsaw comes together. Individually, these motifs are quite simple, but combined they produce powerful results that engender a near-constant state of expectation.
This frequently hair-raising and dazzling summary is a celebration of their considerable achievements to date.