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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“You need to have discipline to create freedom for your band”

Swiss composer Nik Bärtsch and his band Ronin just wrapped up a US tour to present their new two-disc set called “Live”. Everywhere they go, music critics are raving about the groove of a music that is flirting with rock and pop. Swissvibes talked to Nik Bärtsch in New York.

Nik, tell us about your recent US tour with your band Ronin.

Nik Bärtsch We played in Oakland and Portland, where we had already played in the past. We also played at Earshot Jazz Festival in Seattle. It was our first time there and it is a very good festival. Finishing the tour in New York was great. The headquarters of our label ECM are there. We played there last year and it was named by Jim Fusilli, the Wall Street Journal music critic, one of the best live shows of 2011 alongside Radiohead, Patti Smith and Björk. For us, it was amazing to be named with artists like them.

How did your new live album come about?

Nik Bärtsch We recorded about 50 shows. We made a first selection of about 30 tracks from all these shows. We reduced the number to 11 and worked with Manfred Eicher, our producer at ECM, to end up with a final selection of 9 tracks from different shows. The idea was to show the deveopment and activity of the band. It is a funny mix of small venues and bigger ones. For instance, we played in a theater in Lörrach. It was organized by a friend of mine and they had built a lounge. So we had young people lying in front of us when we played. It was kind of strange but also a really special show.

When you talk about Ronin, you often highlight the discipline of your band. Why?

Nik Bärtsch When you listen to great bands like Radiohead or musicians like Herbie Hancock, you can feel they have a lot of discipline. You need to have discipline to create freedom for your band. Our discipline come from our Swiss roots. Our sound is clean and precise. But we only do that to give ourselves freedom during our shows. You could compare us to an experimental pop and rock band. We are precise with our message. But the structure we have in our music allows us to have fun on stage. Music is the message.

Tell us about your relationship to New York.

Nik Bärtsch We played 4 times there. It is always important to play there because it is where most music is developped. We always have had inspiring audiences there. New Yorkers know a lot about bands. We were totally happy because they made us feel that they wanted to hear something special. It is a good feeling.

You are releasing a two-disc set at a time when people listen to more music online. Does this rapidly-changing environment have an impact on how you create an album?

Nik Bärtsch We always did what we thought was right. You have to work on the long run and show people you can surprize them. Ronin sold 50 000 records, which is amazing for a jazz band. The business model changes, the media change, but the message stays the same. I don’t only think myself as a musician. I am also an entrepreneur, because you need to sell records to be able to keep playing.

For more information:

Ronin’ s “Live” two-disc set is out. Label: ECM

Nik Bärtsch and Ronin play every Monday at Exil music club, Hardstrasse 245 21,  in Zurich.

Ronin will perfom at Label Suisse in Lausanne on December 14th, 2012.

For more information: http://www.nikbaertsch.com/konzerte/

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