Nik Baertsch’s Ronin @ The London Jazz Festival

©Martin Moell

©Martin Moell

This is Ronin’s first London gig since their latest recorded-in-concert ECM release simply entitled “LIVE”. New to this Swiss quartet, I had heard them described in terms such as ‘zen, meditative, minimalist and hypnotic’, and am hence expecting to quietly relax in my seat and possibly drift off into some pleasant la-la-land reverie. Fat chance.

Then comes the master’s cry

The opening number, a piece commissioned by the London Jazz Festival to celebrate their 21st edition, admittedly sets out the minimalist framework from which many of Nik Baertsch’s compositions emerge: a small sequence of notes played out repeatedly until an almost humming, vibrational plateau is reached. Then comes the shout – akin to a quantum leap – the master’s cry which signals the change in direction, and it’s never the direction you’re expecting. Enter the spikey-edged groove that creates an exciting synergie among the four musicians as the humming vibration is maintained but layered and combined with idiosyncratic funk-jazz rhythms. At once I understand the beguiling statement featured on the band’s press page: “creating the maximum effect by minimal means”. This is music that makes space within a limited space, yet manages to sound intense and massive. “From self-imposed restriction stems freedom” explains Nik on his website.

In between anything can happen
©Martin Moell

©Martin Moell

The twists and turns inside the strict aesthetic infrastructure are varied, unexpected and occasionally brutal. Tracks merge in and out of one another with liquid low-key starts and scary built-up endings; in between anything can happen. Just as you begin to think you’ve seized the pattern – bang! – here comes a sharp corner ushering in a brisk tempo change, a pregnant pause, an unexpected motive, an anti-pattern or perhaps just a slight percusiive tap on the inside of the piano. The yin and yang of tension and release are constant key elements, (brilliantly exemplified by a loud, almost orgasmic, gasp from an audience member during an unusually abrupt stop mid-flow in track 5). To quote a You Tube comment “It goes right in the body. Ronin can sometimes feel like a drug”, no snoozing on this risky rollercoaster, Nik himself describes his musical thinking as “ecstasy through asceticism”.

What’s clear though is that Nik is having fun…

A big engaging smile encourages the interlocking rhythms between him and his band members. There’s a lot of playfulness going on in the groove habitat despite the apparent strict code of conduct. Sha on the bass clarinet shuffles and whispers like a discreet background vocalist, yet is in fact unifying the electrical force field. Kaspar Rast on drums is raw and explosive when pushing outwards from the framework . Thomy Jordi on bass is the funk master from whom the mesmerising groove stems. This is a band that meets every Monday at 2pm in Zurich to play in a workshop environment open to all members of the public, so to assume that Ronin is a musical concept best appreciated by the brainy and pretentious is a total fallacy. Tonight’s audience is made up of novices as well as diehard fans, and both types leap to a rapturous standing ovation once released from the deliciously dramatic tension.

Nik Baertsch: piano, Fender Rhodes

Sha: bass clarinet, alto saxophone

Thomy Jordi: bass

Kaspar Rast: drums

Nik Baertsch’s Ronin played @ The London Jazz Festival (Kings Place), 23rd November 2013.

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