PREVIEW: Nik Bärtsch's Ronin (new album Awase and appearances at Love Supreme, Turner Sims and the EFG London Jazz Festival

Nik Bärtsch's Ronin
Photo credit: Jonas Holthaus/ ECM

Nik Bärtsch's new album Awase (ECM) is the first with his Ronin group in six years, and Ronin’s first with a new bass player in a new quartet formation. AJ Dehany, for LondonJazz News, caught up with the Swiss pianist and composer via Skype to discuss his distinctive ‘ritual groove music’.   

LondonJazz News: What has changed since the last Ronin album? There’s a continuation musically and personally but in that time a lot has changed in the world politically...  

Nik Bärtsch: I always found what you do is political in a sense. Even when you’re not ‘political’, what you do is always political because you do it in the community. The way we work to really create a community was always my statement of not being forced by the music industry to just follow the usual schedule of rehearsal-tour-album-tour. We took our time, played a lot in my club Exil in Zürich where we perform every Monday. We made fine tunings for the new social organism that Ronin is musically. Some of the new pieces are kind of complex to play and to feel neutrally free in the overlapping of the rhythmic and harmonic cycles.

LJN: Are you still calling it ‘ritual groove music’?  

NB:  It’s not so much a style than an attitude and a certain musical strategy. You find these ways of combining grooves, patterns, modular ways of playing but also this kind of urban flair of merging influences in all sorts of music, from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to David Byrne’s and Brian Eno’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. This is for me ritual groove music too. It is not an invention by me, it’s just a way how to hear and to look at music and music production. It has a lot to do with a certain ritualistic and tribal energy but also with a way of combining rhythms, patterns, and groove phenomena, groove as a collective ownership, as composer Heiner Goebbels once said.

LJN: There are paradoxes in the live approach mixing improvisation and composition to create ‘ritual’ music. How do you concentrate in the moment?  

NB: It’s a mixture of having strong training but then letting everything go and really listening. The structure gives us a lot of possibilities for micro-phrasing, ghost notes, little changes, inventions, dramaturgies that are spiralling up through the pickups. It needs a lot of group focus and training to finally just let it happen naturally. You cannot force these dramaturgies, they need to grow out of the band and the musical flow.

LJNIs this why you went for a live album format previously?  

NB: Exactly. The band has a certain live character and as we know bands need to play if they want to develop and they want to have a band sound. You really need to play a lot to expose yourself to an audience on several places. In the studio of course we have a specific sound that shows maybe a bit more purity in the compositions but the band is a live band and we wanted to show this aspect. I think that’s very important. It’s not a project, it’s a band.

LJN: You can hear on this album producer Manfred Eicher's characteristic live way of recording things: the articulation on the clarinet, the frets on the bass, and of course your vocal shouts. What are you indicating at those moments…to go to the next bit?  

NB: I’m just screaming because that’s just the simplest way; people don’t have to constantly look. Wherever they are in their trance playing their instrument we find the next curve to go into the next part. Sometimes you want that part a bit longer or sometimes something is developing very nicely and then you need a clear sign. That’s the idea of this modular music. You really have the possibility to change things, to stretch them or to shorten them, very much dramaturgically. I like it when you hear that. There’s nothing to hide: it should be real, and straight!

LJN: The new album’s title Awase - moving together - is a term from aikido. Is that still as important as ever to you in your practice?  

NB: Very much. We can change the view on musical physical interaction that we often learn in the music schools: from the interpreter embodiment to the improviser embodiment. Invent the music together by playing it naturally without scores although you maybe learned it with scores. You need to kick the ladder away that helped you to climb up the stairs of understanding the music mentally and physically. Then you get free in playing. You play the composition like and improvisation. That was the basic idea, so that in a way the band organism is the star and not an individual player.

LJN: To what extent do the other musicians follow those rituals outside of just the musical expression of those rituals?  

NB: We are in a very open community so it’s not ideologically fixed! We are not a commune but a musical tribe. We have our Monday session where we play together, we eat together, we have monthly meetings where we talk about things that are socio-musically important for the band. As you know, it’s difficult to keep a band together more than ten years! So this is actually very important for us to talk about all the needs and wishes and the goals and perspectives we have together, then finally you can hear in the music this trust between each other.

LJN: How the important was the departure of bass player Björn Meyer? Does this affect the choices that you make compositionally?  

NB: I like Björn very much. We still sometimes perform with him as a guest and he did his solo shows in my own club in Zürich. He’s still a very good friend but in that time because of a private situation we changed and Thomy Jordi and him were also there already good friends. Thomy plays completely differently from Björn. He likes a more reduced pop/rock way of really playing the pattern while Björn brought a lot of ghost notes and notes in a certain way of subdivision. It’s a fundamental change in the basics of the whole music.

LJN: Does the notion of ‘rhythmic games’ that you’ve played with in the past have a different approach to your own are you writing specifically with the musicians in mind or do you have an idea and then try and fit it to the musicians?   

NB: The drummer Kaspar Rast and I have played together since we are kids. I learn a lot from him. I know how he is playing things and I try to challenge him constantly. I know the band very well and know what the players can do. For example, with the bass clarinet, not a lot of players can do what Sha does; it’s a specific percussive technique, beatboxing on the clarinet. The pieces are composed and should be coherent and formally clear without the band in the sense that the content of the composition should be strong enough but we also want to have the band as an organism that has a certain character and a certain freedom to develop the pieces.

LJN: There is an academic called Holger Hennig, who has mathematically proven how when two or more players improvise whatever they play will affect everything that happens elsewhere in the improvisation. He’s mathematically proven how a decision early on will affect something later on.  

NB: That’s what I admired in some really interesting people who were composing, improvising and also creating band sounds. For example, Miles Davis always had this consciousness for the detail, the precision, but always in the context of the whole concert. In a Miles concert usually there was a huge dramaturgy so it was not like piece by piece, talking-next piece-talking-medium piece-talking-fast piece-talking-ballad. It was kind of a trip, and the trip could change but you knew there was a beat where you go to where you’d have strong and sensual direction for the whole concert that captures the audience. (pp)

Nik Bärtsch in 2016
Photo credit: Christian Senti/ ECM

AJ Dehany is based in London and writes independently about music, art and stuff. ajdehany.co.uk

Awase is released on ECM. Ronin will be playing at Love Supreme on 1 July, at Turner Sims Southampton on 9 November, and at Ronnie Scott’s during the EFG London Jazz Festival on 19 November.  

LINK: Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin

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