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Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin : Live

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Live, this deeply continental and assured sextet is a jam band with the precision of a Swiss watch. Like a sophisticated mechanical timepiece, it’s all in the complications. Where in a watch a complication is a function, like a power reserve indicator or a second hand with its own dial, in keyboardist Nik Bärtsch’s supple group it’s a texture: the way Björn Mayer’s arco bass resonates against, with and around Andi Pupato’s percussion in the huge-sounding “Modul 41_17” that launches this hypnotic set, or the way Sha’s alto saxophone burns through the careful structure of “Modul 45,” the nervy cut that begins disc two so sneakily.

LIVE, Ronin’s fourth ECM offering, was recorded between 2009 and 2011 in various northern European locales, except for one track set down in Tokyo. The first disc is five tracks; the second contains four. The shortest is a hair over eight minutes, the longest more than double that. There are moments of peace, of near-stasis. But over the course of these long discs, there’s no sag. Expertly sequenced, they unfold like a single concert.

This Swiss group purveys elements of what used to be called progressive rock, in its headiness and layered intricacy. This is music of spatial relationships, of structure rather than tune (each track is a “modul”): Bärtsch, Sha, bassists Mayer and Thomy Jordi, percussionist Pupato and drummer Kaspar Rast assemble massive offerings, building then dissipating anxiety as they tinker with meter, switch instruments and modulate dynamics, crafting music both limpid and unbearably dramatic. Ronin consistently builds that tension so when the explosion comes-and one always does-it’s thrilling.

Manfred Eicher’s production is appropriately and predictably crystalline, Bärtsch’s liner notes provocative and articulate. The packaging is elegant and minimalist in the ECM tradition, befitting the Ronin ethos.

Originally Published