Nik Bärtsch’s quest for piano repertoire melding the spirituality of martial arts has led him first to the formation of his quartet, Ronin after the quintessential Rōnin, or masterless, drifting or wandering Samurai during the Japanese feudal period (1185–1868), who became so after the death or fall of his master, or after the loss of his master’s favor. This beautiful subterfuge continues on Awase, which is, in turn, a means to merge one power in martial arts, with that of one’s opponent. This idea is brought to fruition with what Mr Bärtsch calls a “modul”. There sic of them (or five plus one to which is assigned a cipher in the form of the first alphabet in Roman oriented languages. The dark magic of these songs comes alive through the hypnotic stabbing of notes by Mr Bärtsch on his piano around which the winds and reeds player Sha weaves the threads of the music’s harmony with pulsating bass lines by Thomy Jordi and the tattoo of Kaspar Rast’s drums.
Although these “moduls” are separated by numerals, suggesting musical journeys beginning at a given point but then separating like a river splayed upon a delta into many directions all ultimately flowing into a vast ocean of sound. Mr Bärtsch is an able and idiomatic soloist and his bandmates support him with great flair and complete harmonic and rhythmic precision. The music is a masterful confluence of ideas, appropriately conservative in style, yet far from the norm; distinctively coloured through prominent use of the silken textures of Sha’s tenor saxophone, often buffeted by raspy reediness of the bass clarinet, juxtaposed by a pulse suggestive of a warrior-like rhythmic movement that is both atmospherically Romantic and courts chromatically enhanced ideas as well.
All of the music is awash in the warmth and fluency of Mr Bärtsch’s pianism as he presents the music in the strongest possible light. Most distinctive is the “bravura” variations on the awase theme, which couples glittering virtuosity with an inventive seemingly geometric progression of the melodies . Best of all is “Modul 36” which is melodically more elusive but uses smart,, unusual sonorities. The rich and orchestral “Modul 59” rounds off the disc. This is a work distinctive for its soundtrack-like mobility superbly in keeping with the idea that these are musicians led by the proverbially peripatetic Ronin: Nik Bärtsch.
Track list – 1: Modul 60; 2: Modul 58; 3: A; 4: Modul 36; 5: Modul 34; 6: Modul 59
Personnel – Nik Bärtsch: piano; Sha: bass clarinet, and alto saxophone; Thomy Jordi: bass; Kasper Rast: drums
Released – 2018
Label – ECM Records (ECM2603)
Runtime – 1:05:12