April 2008

Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin: Don’t Fake the Funk

For someone renowned for an economical approach to piano improvisation and composing, Nik Bärtsch speaks rather effusively about his “Zen-funk” philosophy. His lengthy, involved explanations trail off like fanciful Chick Corea solos, making fascinating, sometimes unexpected turns but always resolving with lucid insight.

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Marc Wetli

Steady groovin': Nik Bartsch (far left) and Ronin

Bärtsch focuses on the concepts of balance and paradox. “We are looking for a kind of simplicity but within an intelligent way; the music should not seem complicated,” he says with calm deliberation. “I think [Zen-funk] has a lot to do with the idea that simple things have a lot of high concepts. A simple gesture has a lot behind it. That’s important for our music.”

That certainly goes hand-in-hand with the erudite, stately poise of ECM Records, which issued his critically acclaimed Stoa in 2006 and its new superb follow-up, Holon. But where’s the funk? Funk is commonly thought of as being less stoic and intellectual and more instinctual and boisterous—music designed for sweaty, physical and oft-erotic pleasure. “Funk seems to [be] an opposite, because it has a lot of power and intensity. But on the other hand, it has a repetition and a ritualistic dramatic flow. The two terms, ‘funk’ and ‘Zen,’ are paradoxical, maybe, but they have their commonalities in terms of structure,” he explains.

Just as the evocative, repetitive electronica of Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express shared certain elements with the sounds on TV’s Soul Train, Bärtsch and his longstanding ensemble, Ronin, create similar music that at times alludes to both Steve Reich and James Brown. Compositions like “Modul 35” and “Modul 33”—both from Stoa—begin in pneumatic, modern European classical fashion as Bärtsch maps out circling melodic cells. As the compositions slowly progress, the luminous moods grow dark and decidedly funkier—thanks to bassist Björn Meyer and drummer Kaspar Rast’s interlocking pockets of rhythm that mutate only slightly but percolate with soul-power precision. Sha (Stefan Haslebacher) often adds another level of bottom-end mystique with bass clarinet riffs that blend superbly into Meyer and Rast’s rhythmic bed.

Those sounds helped make Stoa one of ECM’s funkiest discs of 2006 without sacrificing the label’s cool, detached ethos. Holon finds Bärtsch continuing his “Zen-funk” with looser interactivity and more rhythmic agility. “We’ve had a lot of opportunities to play in a lot of different contexts in the last two years,” he says. “On very subtle levels, the band’s interplay has developed. We have a deeper connection with each other and with the music.

“Each component of the music has an individual meaning and possibility of moving on its own, but there’s a connection between all of the parts,” Bärtsch explains.

Born in Zürich, Switzerland to a graphic-designer father and a fashion-designer mother, Bärtsch grew up drawing. Music was present in the household but not forced onto him or his sister. Being a highly rhythmic pianist, it’s hardly surprising that Bärtsch’s first musical inclination was playing drums at age 7. “The reason I wanted to learn drumming was because it was not popular,” he says with a laugh. “Teachers and parents said that we should learn something like violin or piano.”

Bärtsch’s interest in jazz piano ignited when a visiting musician played boogie-woogie piano at his high school, a performance he saw before jazz gained respectability in Swiss schools. “My music teachers didn’t like me at all. I had to quit the music school,” he says. “When I was 16, I had no idea about classical music; I could not read music. I was more of an improviser.” To continue his piano studies, his mother found him a private teacher, who had experience in jazz education at Berklee. “He showed me some Chick Corea,” Bärtsch remembers. Another significant influence during his teen years was Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. “His way of treating the rhythm of film, and his dramaturgical flow was kind of different for me.”

Bärtsch finds it difficult to pinpoint exactly when he first started toying around with the concept of “Zen-funk.” Nevertheless, he cites its germination during his teen years, kicking the soccer ball and forming bands with Ronin’s drummer, Rast. “His way of playing the drums influenced me very early,” Bärtsch claims. Together they formed both Ronin and Bärtsch’s other band, Mobile, with which Bärtsch coined the phrase “ritualistic groove music,” which served as the title of Mobile’s 2001 self-released debut disc. That “ritualistic groove music” eventually evolved into “Zen-funk.”

As with George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic, Ronin and Mobile have only slight personnel changes but uphold the same musical principles and goals: in Bärtsch’s case, taking P-Funk to a whole ’nother cerebral level.

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