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.

Elina Duni Quartet @ the London Jazz Festival

BaO_DuniYou physically feel the power of Elina’s cry

Elina Duni is a storyteller and from the moment her first ever London concert began she unapologetically took us, barefoot, from the Queen Elizabeth Hall into the forests and mountains of Eastern Europe. And into a culture of stirring tales of family bonds, passionate love, loss and longing. You physically feel the power of Elina’s cry, the emotional quivering of the Balkan vibrato and resonance of the words (even though most of us didn’t know the language) and along with her quartet she held the audience rapt

“The magical part is what’s happening between us, our interplay”

Elina’s lifeblood is both the folk music of her birthplace, Albania, and improvised music. “The magical part is what’s happening between us, our interplay,” she explained to me and over the nine years they’ve played together they’ve evolved ways to hold Elina’s stories (two were traditional songs passed to her by grandparents) without crushing them under the weight of jazz improv or, more to the point, not being eclipsed by them and Elina’s charisma. In The Girl of the Waves Elina’s ethereal vocal sounded as if it was floating on the wind, being carried to the bird that the girl is questioning about her missing lover. Colin Vallon’s piano felt like the bird’s reply, sweet yet with edgy minor keys to hint at tragedy.

“The earth beneath us”

Elina Duni_PF2I have to admit I was entranced by Colin’s imagination; he is a potent voice and I want to check his own trio now. At times he played with such melancholy it broke my heart, then in a moment, flashed his anger or became cold, like ice cubes dropping into Elina’s blood-red cocktail, cracking and clinking, changing the temperature. He used various techniques to physically alter the piano, deadening the resonance or twisting the keys into cimbalom-like notes, revealing a Balkan soul whilst never breaking the spiritual thread of jazz.

The drumming of Norbert Pfammatter was sensitive and swinging. He made every beat count and at a pace that clearly said, ‘I’m taking my time, got a problem with that?’ He used bundles of thin sticks to create an effect between brushing and drumming and exuded a yin quality: soft but dark, tapping out a funereal rhythm or taking us into a tribal trance. The double bass of Patrice Moret stayed warm and solid, ‘The earth beneath us,’ as Elina described it.

Albanian blues

A rendition of Nënë Moj, a son sorrowfully telling his mother he must leave to his homeland to work, was a highlight. Elina described it as Albanian blues and it’s the flavour of the quartet’s next album. If it’s half as thrilling as their performance it will blow your socks off. I did want to hear a wider range of sounds and ideas but admittedly it was a short set. I think it will be vital for the quartet to establish the breadth of their creativity in the future. After the gig finished, I heard a woman behind me say, “You can feel the root, the tradition and that’s what she is.” I would add that Elina is genuine, humble and only at the start of exploring her full compelling potential.


Elina Duni played @The London Jazz Festival (Southbank), 19 November, 2013.

Next concerts:

23.11. 2013, München (DE), Unterfarht
06.12. 2013 Fribourg, La Spirale (Elina Duni & Bessa Myftiu, lecture-chant)
25.12. 2013 Bern (CH), Bee-Flat, Elina Duni & Colin Vallon
05.01.2014 Toulouse (FR), salle Nougaro
16.01.2014 Paris-Pantin (FR), Festival Banlieues Bleues, la Dynamo
17.01.2014 Auray (FR), Centre Culturel Athena

Samuel Blaser: Trombone Man

SamuelBlaserLacPosterSamuel Blaser doesn’t mess around. The 32 year old formed the Samuel Blaser Trio with Marc Ducret and Peter Bruun six months ago and they’re already on their third tour touching down at the Festival Jazz Onze+ in Lausanne, London Jazz Festival and playing Poland and Italy in the next couple of months.

You need Sherlock Holmes to deduce which bands he was, is, or will be, performing in

In the last few months he’s toured as a duo with Ducret in Brazil (“There is an opening market there,” he says, due to the SESC cultural centres), released a CD with Consort in Motion, the international outfit that included revered drummer Paul Motion until his death in 2011 and has been to Japan with his new solo venture, “It’s like a marathon for trombone,” he tells me of the hour-long performances.

“A lot of time I don’t like the way the trombone is played…

When I ask him how he keeps his ‘creative well’ topped up, with so many projects on the go, he looks at me questioningly, “I don’t feel like I need to be inspired.” He just listens to music every day, “Yesterday I listened to…Burning Spear, Dennis Bovell [with whom Samuel also plays] then some Polish pop, and today Maria Callas, Beethoven and Joe Henderson, all kinds of music, yeah.” And it was Vinco Globokar and Berlioz that originally fired his love of trombone, “Those guys really pushed the boundaries of the instrument and that was really inspiring.” He moved into jazz through his mum’s love of the music but says, “A lot of time I don’t like the way the trombone is played…I try to keep the natural way of the trombone to express myself and to have new extended techniques.”

He refesamuelblaser3rs to his trombone as ‘her’

It’s a true romance (he refers to his trombone as ‘her’) that began after seeing marching bands when he was two years old. He couldn’t say the word, ‘trombone’, so tried to make a sliding movement to his parents then held onto his dream until he was nine when his arms were (almost) long enough to play. He progressed rapidly at the local conservatory in La Chaux-de-Fonds, winning awards, praise and a Fullbright scholarship to study in America.

“Maybe if I call myself ‘Trombone Chubby’…”

It’s when I ask whether he has to ‘compose to order’ that he remembers the tribute to Jimmy Giuffre he’s recording next year with, due to his own suggestion to Fortune Records, Ravi Coltrane. “I don’t like to record an album only with material written by someone else. I need to add my touch so that I feel it is mine,” Blaser comments. Last month saw the release of a recording made with Benoît Delbecq and Who Trio’s Gerry Hemingway that charted in Billboard’s top 50 jazz albums. “Maybe if I call myself Trombone Chubby…” he quips with reference to Trombone Shorty’s chart success.

He keeps his spirit light

It’s not all fast and plain sailing as Blaser explains, “I still cannot really break through into France and I’ve been playing with French musicians since 2002.” He also has to find a label for a solo recording made with ‘sound designer’ Martin Ruch in various rooms of the ex-DDR radio station in Berlin. He knows it’s not an easy sell, but says it with his ever-optimistic smile. It’s the Blaser secret: he doesn’t spend time on things that don’t work or he doesn’t like to do (a good manager helps) and he keeps his spirit light. While he has a smile on his face, a shiny trombone in his hands and a song in his heart, I’m sure Blaser will maintain this incredible workload and find out who he really is as a musician.

Samuel Blaser is playing London Jazz Festival (Oto Café), the 17th of November.

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