Nobody comes close to sounding like this remarkable and accessible outfit.
Sid Smith 2010
Although this is his third album for ECM, Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch has been releasing albums of what he calls "zen funk" or "ritual groove music" since 2001. Sparse but always elegant, his compositions are pared-to-the-bone affairs consisting of crisply constructed acoustic piano patterns occasionally wreathed in electric Fender Rhodes ghost notes.
Against slivers of melodies graced with a Satie-like simplicity, the rest of the musicians tug and gnaw at the rhythmic opportunities his pieces gleefully expose. In another situation the brass player, Sha, might be expected to run away with freewheeling solos; but here, like every other musician in the group, he stays close to the immediate space around the themes. His sax offers up soaring notes of purest silver, whilst his parping contra-bass clarinet often digs deep, doubling Björn Meyer’s subterranean bass guitar runs.
Sometimes the pair will lock horns, and then go in and out of phase with Bärtsch’s constantly tumbling rhythms. This creates a complex hive of activity that’s both hugely entertaining and deeply rewarding.
Similarly, drummer Kaspar Rast, who has worked with Bärtsch since they were kids, keeps rock-solid time with only the most minimal of rolls and twists around the kit, keenly wedded to the less-is-more principle. With percussionist Andi Pupato adding exotic metallic dissonances and brilliantly imaginative counterpoints, their grooves quickly establish a relentless quality that sweeps up everything in its path.
With everything so tightly controlled, it can sometimes feels akin to being inside a large, perfectly-turned clockwork mechanism. Yet it’s this painstakingly created environment where even the tiniest of shifts in time or motion take on an almost cathartic grandeur.
Frequently astonishing in the depth and richness of its conception, Bärtsch’s grasp and exploitation of tension and release is fascinating. His music thrillingly combines a Steve Reich-like minimalist aesthetic with the kind of effortless funk-punch reminiscent of a Headhunters-era Herbie Hancock. That said, nobody currently on the scene comes close to sounding like this remarkable, and remarkably accessible, outfit.