Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin: Awase (ECM)

Review of the first album of new material in eight years by the Swiss pianist's band

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Eight years have elapsed since Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch last released an album of new material from his mesmerizing group Ronin. In that time, he has issued a set of live Ronin material and put out a record from a different ensemble, Mobile. Meanwhile, the Ronin lineup has changed, with bassist Thomy Jordi replacing Björn Meyer, and slimmed to a quartet with the departure of percussionist Andi Pupato. But the years and alterations have not affected the sound of Ronin. Minimalism and repetition remain the band’s calling cards.

Ronin’s approach isn’t much different from that of a techno artist: A groove is established and then tweaked ever so slightly every so many measures, so that gradual changes add up to dramatic ones. And though there are no solos, songs take a long time to unwind; these six tunes each run an average of almost 11 minutes. As with Bärtsch’s previous albums, the songs of Awase are numbered rather than named, except for one: Bärtsch has uncharacteristically allowed one of his band members—bass clarinetist and alto saxophonist Stefan Haslebacher, known as “Sha”—to contribute a composition, called “A.” It’s a slow, funereal piece, less driven by rhythm than the other tunes, that serves as a way station between Bärtsch’s. On the other numbers, the leader’s icy piano combines with Jordi’s bass and Kaspar Rast’s sharp stickwork to etch brain-infecting patterns. The catchiest is “Modul 36,” whose dreamy piano-and-bass duet evolves over 13 minutes into something resembling a hybrid of electronica, blues, and a Philip Glass film score, its minor chords contrasting with fluttering clarinet spurts, insistent bass, and churning drums.

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