Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin Live Review

Live. Released 2012.  

BBC Review

A hair-raising and dazzling celebration of Ronin’s considerable achievements to date.

Sid Smith 2012

Swiss pianist and composer Nik Bärtsch has described live concerts as “a meditative and explosive form of collaboration,” a transient space where band and audience have a fleeting opportunity to form a single circuit that makes something powerful happen.

Although his three studio albums fronting the Ronin group for the ECM label since 2006 all possess a sleek brilliance that’s won justified praise, these productions have never adequately captured the harsher edges that emerge from the outfit as it rattles along during a gig. But this two-CD set does just that.

Ronin’s music has a propulsive volatility that’s forever galloping forward as their polyrhythmic jigsaw comes together. Individually, these motifs are quite simple, but combined they produce powerful results that engender a near-constant state of expectation.

As the tension builds, Bärtsch can often be heard shouting out a few bars before a dramatic shift in tempo, pattern or direction. Whilst it’s usually a cue to abruptly break formation, it acts as an exultantly cathartic response to cumulative transitions whose bracing pointillism come generously laced with evocations of Steve Reich, and ingeniously stippled with Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters-era funk.

In concert Bärtsch’s admirably minimalist compositions aren’t quite so compacted as studio counterparts. Although there’s still little in the way of conventional soloing, the feel is more open-ended with bassist Björn Meyer taking advantage of the extra room with some especially yearning ruminations.

Bärtsch deploys forlorn melodies imbued with a Satie-esque melancholia. Elsewhere, his hand-muted piano strings transmute haunting arabesques into elegant koto-like flourishes. By contrast, the guttural yelps and growls emanating from Sha’s contrabass clarinet puts a fiery breath underneath the inventive metrical variations of percussionist Andi Pupato and Kaspar Rast’s constantly percolating snare and hi-hat.

While Meyer and Pupato have departed since these recordings were made, as Ronin repeatedly and effortlessly demonstrate across these nine pieces, incremental change has always been an essential part of their game plan. Although marking the end of a part of the band’s history, this frequently hair-raising and dazzling summary is a celebration of their considerable achievements to date.

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