Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch’s music has always been about grooves carved out of minimalism, and he favors collectivism over individual freedom. No one solos, ever. Rarely has an artist been able to do so much with so little.
After three studio albums and one double live disc for ECM with his band Ronin, Bärtsch returns to his original quartet, Mobile, for its first ECM album, Continuum. Mobile includes bass clarinetist Stefan “Sha” Haslebacher and drummer Kaspar Rast (both of Ronin), and a second percussionist, Nicolas Stocker. Mobile’s aesthetic is identical to Ronin’s: long, repetitive compositions built on simple motifs and driven by slight adjustments to the rhythm. Seven of the eight tunes run longer than eight minutes, and most of that time is spent adding to and subtracting from brief themes while building and releasing rhythmic tension. There is so little variation within a tune that it’s surprising when a song like “Modul 18” dares to present what almost sounds like verse/chorus structure-and introduces a string quintet, which appears on three songs and lends a cinematic quality.
Bärtsch numbers rather than names his work: “Modul 12,” “Modul 60,” “Modul 29_14” and so on. It underscores the idea that these are neither traditional compositions nor vehicles for personal expression or emotion. There is a clean, icy quality to this music-a hallmark of Scandinavian jazz-that invites comparisons to electronica and to the work of Philip Glass and film composer Thomas Newman. Some tracks, like “Modul 5,” modulate between only two chords for minutes on end, but the performance holds the listener rapt. Continuum, beginning to end, is mesmerizing.