For Nik Bärtsch and Ronin, Jazz Is a Mixed Martial Art

The band led by the Swiss pianist looks to follow the path of the samurai

Nik Bärtsch's Ronin

Terminology matters to Nik Bärtsch. “We talk about music and we want to feel a certain energy in it, a certain metaphoric direction,” says the pianist, speaking over Skype from his home in Zürich. “So it’s very important to me to have a term that says something very clear in a very short form.” He has coined just such a term for the music of his Ronin quartet: Zen funk.

Bärtsch acknowledges the inherent contradiction of the term, juxtaposing a meditative state against aggressive rhythm. “In what we play, in our attitudes, these two energies—meditative flow and strong, kinetic groove—are both essential. In my music I try to bring them together and I feel it very strongly.”

It works, especially in Ronin’s live performances. Bärtsch, along with bassist Thomy Jordi and drummer Kaspar Rast, establishes figured pulses with the percussive tack of funk, but the spellbinding repetitiveness of a koan or a mantra. Bass clarinetist/alto saxophonist Sha layers his own vamps, albeit more melodic than percussive, over the top. A willing audience is rewarded with sonic mesmerism that can carry them away like the children of Hamelin.

To this recipe, Ronin’s new album Awase adds another seemingly clashing ingredient: martial arts. The title—another of Bärtsch’s carefully chosen words—is a term from the Japanese discipline of aikido, which he studies.

In fact, he explains, it’s not a paradox at all. The art of aikido is that of finding an attacker or sparring partner’s rhythm, and of moving in harmony with it—even as both attacker and defender improvise. To reach that state of rhythm and harmony is to achieve awase.

“It’s about being in the moment,” he says. “Thinking and reacting with your body, not so much your brain. Nobody else in the band studies aikido, but the longer I did it, the more I realized what it has to do with musicianship. In all sorts of performing arts, theater and music but also sports and martial arts, you have this challenge of really being present, but also being in a dramaturgical flow.”

Bärtsch is a composer, and his pieces include written parts for every member of the band. Yet what he writes is understood by all to be just the kernel. “It’s in a score,” he says. “But then also we play it in rehearsals, and then also play it live in the club every week. Then much later, when the band has adapted the music, developed it in a different direction or with new perspectives, then it goes into the live set for the tours, and finally we record it.”

The repetition in the music can be deceiving; much more of it is improvised than may be apparent. This includes individual solos, but also techniques for group improvisation, such as what Bärtsch calls “ghost note maps”—choosing to phrase some notes with a smoothness or softness that can’t be notated, but can reorient the entire band’s playing on a tune.

The result is exactly the heady mix of concepts and practices that Bärtsch strives for: meditative movement, energetic calm, presence in the moment but also deep, learned understanding. The pianist concentrated all of that into one more well-selected term, his band’s name. A ronin was a type of samurai during Japan’s feudal era, one who didn’t serve a master. “They were able to cultivate their freedom,” Bärtsch says. “Work on their art, explore their world as philosophic research.

“For me, this band captured the idea of the Ronin, but also with the radical idea to do that together,” he continues. “To really work for that path, focus on it, be more than just the Nik Bärtsch Quartet. I want to express that there is a philosophy behind it, an idea and a musical and social energy, that finally led to what you see now.”