Jazz has always been a quickly evolving musical form. Some even say it’s one of the truest art forms. From the early days of Bebop, through Free Jazz, to Electric Jazz Fusion and even Hip Hop, jazz composers and improvisers have always looked forwards. What’s interesting about Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin is that they are looking backwards, towards the early pioneers of minimalism from the 1960’s. On reflection, it seems odd that this fusion of elements has not been pushed into mainstream consciousness before. Modal jazz albums like A Silent Way started the trend and composers like Jarrett and Esbjörn Svensson were influenced by it. Using the quartet format, Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin is building upon these greats and taking it a step further.
Even though technically he may be influenced by a musical genre that is over 50 years old, the music that his Ronin ensemble produce sounds distinctly modern. Many contemporary trio and quartets are also following a similar path, but Bärtsch’s combines the interleaving rhythmical melodies of minimalism with the jazz quartet format in a clever, more formalised way.
Like some of his other albums, Awase has a very similar vibe; building up hypnotic, repetitive interlocking melodies and rhythms with flashes of improvisation, making what he terms as ‘Ritual Groove Music’. Sounding simple and effortless on the surface, we all know that underneath, this music takes world-class skill and talent to execute correctly.
MODES AND MODULS
In amongst the seemingly never-ending ostinatos that make up the album, there are some standout moments. “Modul 58” relies on an underlything rhythmical theme in 7/8 underpinning the whole piece. It’s extensively developed by the whole band, including the ostinatos appearing on the low-end earthy bass clarinet. Sha cleverly repeats the melody using popping key sounds which is very cool. The ending features a great melody appearing from the blanket of sounds and cheeky piano stabs push things along, really amping up the intensity. Great sounds and interesting interplay makes this one of the more stand out pieces.
“A” is darker, again building on a seemingly simple melody and using this to develop into some deep slow grooves. A head nodder in the jazz sense. Further variation in tone with the use of high bass notes make for a nice change to the textures.
Other really cool moments are the awesome grooves from Kasper Rast and heavy 5ths on the Piano on “Modul 36”, moving the band into fusion territory with their own inimitable style, but always coming back to the melodies to anchor the whole thing. “Modul 59” is a lop-sided, complex affair, reminding me of a quartet version of Steve Coleman. Overlapping themes and time signatures sees the return of the key popping clarinet and some Jarrett-like shouts of joy as the band really get into the groove.
Lack of emotion has been leveled at minimalist music, and Bärtsch does not really do himself any favours with song titles like “Modul 59” and “A” to be honest. This makes the pieces sound like a technical exercise, but they offer much more than that. Certainly some of the pieces like “Modul 60” and “Modul 34” head towards fairly generic sounding affairs with little to make me want to listen to them specifically again. Sure, there is nothing wrong with them, they sound nice. These pieces let the album down somewhat, as they don’t really add to the experience as a whole.
Although the other compositions are great, the band never fully let go at any point. They play their parts superbly, but everything is a little understated. This leads to the album feeling polished and clever, but lacking in many real moments of sheer joy or grunt. When playing live, the band paint a very different picture but, if that is the case, why not just release another live album instead?
A TASTE OF THE TRUE TALENT
What I do like about Bärtsch’s band is that they don’t try and sound like electronic instruments. It sometimes confuses and bores me when similar contemporary jazz ensembles like Gogo Penguin et al. rely on that trick. It’s going to date quickly fellas. The fact that Bärtsch is on the ECM label shows that he’s a cut above the rest when it comes to this style of music.
Awase is very good album in every sense of the word but it’s been really hard to score. It feels that the band were confined to thinking like studio musicians rather than letting go and expressing themselves fully. It’s like a ‘taster’ for the band, rather than showing what they are truly capable of. I’d recommend checking out the live album and videos as well, as this is where they really shine, showing off their true talent and originality.
Notable Tracks: “Module 58”; “A”;
FFO: Keith Jarrett, E.S.T., Dawn of Midi, Gogo Penguin, Badbadgood