Pianist Nik Bärtsch fancies his quintet Ronin a groove-jazz ensemble, but it’s not what you might think. There’s no organ here, and no guitar. This is a quiet, minimalist kind of groove with a shimmering luminescence. It’s an acoustic, European variation on funk, in line with what Esbjörn Svensson’s trio has been doing for several years. Except for Bärtsch’s decision to abandon the Fender Rhodes and stick with the acoustic piano, Holon, Ronin’s second album, is much like the first, 2006’s Stoa. Songs are not titled; they are numbered “modules.” Within them, phrases are repeated and repeated, digging a trough into each tune—hence the groove. Compositions are bare outlines, performances unadorned. There are no sheets of sound, no flurries, no cascades and few animated solos. Blue notes are rare. “Modul 42” circles around its simple theme, building slowly like the score behind a key scene in a suspense film.
That such spare, modest playing could ingratiate itself so deeply with the listener is a bit unnerving. This sort of jazz, with its relentless cycling figures, is the acoustic equivalent of techno music, where progression means slight, almost unnoticeable changes in rhythm and structure. “Modul 41-17” goes on for 15 minutes, changing ever so gradually as it moves along, and yet it never drags, perhaps because Bärtsch, bassist Björn Meyer, drummer Kaspar Rast and percussionist Andi Pupato lay the groove on so thick. Clarinetist Stefan Haslebacher (who calls himself “Sha”) rounds out Ronin, but his contributions matter less. It is, after all, the rhythm section that creates the funk.