Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin: Stoa

Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch and his band have an undeniable knack for minimalism. Stoa belies some other influences, like prog rock and electronica, and Bärtsch loves him some Eastern philosophy, but composers like Steve Reich loom large over this shiny acoustic machine of repeating rhythms, arpeggios and staggered chords.

The band builds long, arching structures of sound and rhythm where everyone plays a percussive role nearly all the time-even the hapless bass guitarist/contrabass clarinetist Sha, who dutifully tongue-slaps on his horn for what seems like the duration of the recording. Sometimes they are simply content to maintain a rhythm and groove. At other times, they fit small sketches of melody and invention into the leftover space. Bärtsch takes most of what little space for invention there is. When he isn’t playing at melody, he’s poking out the same staccato note over and over and letting ECM’s famous reverb do half the work.

The band can produce a clever, minty sound-the sort of thing you might expect to hear on the soundtrack to a Sundance film at a point when, say, some quirky character stares at out-of-focus leaves. But they are also too content to cruise on a dull rock/funk beat. Bärtsch calls his music “Zen funk,” which in this case means jam-band music for urban sophisticates.