Nik Bärtsch studied piano and percussion from an early age, and it shows in his music. There’s an elegance to his groups like Ronin or Mobile, and there’s a percussive logic to the compositions, which he calls “Moduls” and considers to be templates. Phrases are repeated and layers build complexly toward structures that owe equally to Steve Reich and Musicians and Max Roach’s M’Boom. “I was looking for a meditative, percussive music that has pulse in it,” Bärtsch says in the promotional video that his label posted to accompany the release of his latest recording. Much as it makes compelling, intense music when performed in ensembles, that style translates well into a solo piano setting too, the focus on Entendre.
The new album takes an already austere approach and strips it to its essence. That is immediately evident in “Modul 58_12.” A terse left-hand figure leads the tune, raising tension until the tempo accelerates, and the dramatic effect builds. It’s maintained by additional short, repeated figures with each hand, until it resolves into a spare finish with woodsy percussion. “Modul 55” begins with a zing, presumably from a strum of the piano innards, but in contrast to the urgency of the opening piece, it’s tranquil, with concise rhythms gently rising and receding. These performances set the tone for a 53-minute program of mesmerizing music. In technique, it continually feels new, but the results are excitingly familiar. Like Anna Webber or Tyshawn Sorey, Nik Bärtsch has one foot in the classical realm, but like the work of those two stellar musicians, Entendre is not a balancing act but a sumptuous blend.