Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Ronin’s Holon

Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin
ECM Records

With a host of influences, Swiss pianist Nik Bärtsch offers critics an opportunity to pick their favorite. Many seem drawn to Steve Reich comparisons and discussions of minimalism. Others discuss the seductive grooves and techno elements. Obviously, there is a strong Eastern influence as well, clearly referenced by the band’s name. Bärtsch’s Ronin brings it all together for their trance inducing new release, Holon, which defies easy classification.

Each track on Holon is a mathematically labeled “modul,” which do not necessarily follow in strict arithmetic order. Yet they do sound all of a piece, with each modul blending into the next, all the while propelled along by a hypnotic pulse.

Bärtsch eschews keyboards on this outing in favor of the acoustic piano, which adds a lighter, sparkling texture, particular in the introductions to the first “Modul 42” and “Modul 39_8.” Together Ronin has evolved into a seamless band, whose improvisations are difficult to unravel from the overall compositional fabric. Each member has opportunity for self expression. For instance, bassist Björn Meyer comes to the fore in “Modul 45,” with Sha’s alto adding a haunting air. Holon really works though because of Bärtsch’s ability to lock-in with drummer Kaspar Rust and percussionist Andi Pupato. Here the groove is very definitely the thing.

Ronin seems quite an apt name for this band that so deceptively sublimates their solo roles to their collective expression. Ronin were masterless samurai, disgraced for failing their feudal lords. The most celebrated were the 47 Ronin, who sacrificed their lives in a campaign to avenge their master. Bärtsch speaks of the freedom of the samurai, but that ostensible freedom was deceptive. True Ronin were constrained by a code of honor, which inextricably limited their course of action.

Holon segues effortlessly from the dark and moody to open, airy passages. It pulls listeners along with its insistent rhythm and the remarkable cohesion of Bärtsch and company. While there is indeed the minimalist influence, Ronin should not be confused with mere ambient music. There is some exciting soloing integrating into their aural tapestry. Though difficult to evoke in words, they are very compelling to listen to, with Holon being their most definitive statement to date.