Album review: Nik Baartsch Ronin – Awase (ECM)

Nik Bärtsch Ronin – Awase (ECM)

He’s into his Japanese martial arts is Nik, his band is named after a samurai without a master and the title of this album means ‘competitive’ in the land of the rising sun. Bärtsch is Swiss and plays piano in the serialist style, that is he is very keen on the meditative power of repetition and can get lost in what he calls “ritual groove music”, fortunately he has a very good band and ECM makes extremely good recordings, otherwise it might be hard to join him on the journey. This is the first Bärtsch album I have heard on vinyl, but not the first released, and the sound is something else, absolutely huge in scale with inky black backgrounds from which sounds emerge like spectres. It’s hard not to be mesmerized by this sort of sound quality but thankfully the music is pretty good as well, especially on the opener Modul 60 which is one of the quieter of the six tracks on Awase.

It starts with a down tempo piano beat that’s joined by the wail of Sha’s saxophone before bassist Thomy Jordi and drummer Kasper Rast join in to build the piece up to a majestic soundscape. The track progresses calmly, the horn floating in and out of the blackness while the rest of the band build a quiet, high torque backing that’s as deep as the abyss thanks to some seriously low bass. Things start to get more intense on Modul 58 where Bärtsch gets into his serial vibe and ups the tempo while providing a counterpoint to the rhythm being laid down by the band, this produces a trance inducing pattern that only the sax seeks to disrupt. But more often than not the whole band drives the rhythm along and builds up the pressure. This is the longest track on the album at over 18 minutes but is so compelling that you don’t notice.

The simply named track A is on side B of course and fully reveals how well the drums are recorded, which is very well indeed, in fact I don’t think I’ve heard better. They sound real even at sensible levels. There is a strong sense of restraint on this track, the musicians take their time to build the theme toward it’s unusually funky mid section where they repeat and extend the central motif. For Modul 36 Jordi plays high notes on his bass making it sound more like a guitar and strikes up a melody with Bärtsch for the intro. Sha brings in the chocolately brown sound of a bass clarinet and the drums are played slowly but with plenty of power, it’s very hard not to turn up the level when things sound this good, but be careful, just because it’s clean doesn’t mean it’s not going to wake the neighbours.

The music on Awase combines jazz and rock in a way that no one else is doing, it has the intensity and power of rock but avoids straight forward rhythm lines. Bärtsch’s love of repetition means it works better in bite size chunks but however you listen it’s a phenomenal sound experience and one that makes as good a case for vinyl as I’ve heard in a long time.

Jason Kennedy

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