Ninja Jazz

From Zen to funk, Swiss composer Nik Bärtsch has moved from beautiful landscape music to exploratory group improvisations that keep the spirit of Miles Davis alive.

By Peter Hulm

Who would have thought the music of a Swiss philosopher could be such fun?

Nietzsche's music is nobody's idea of a good time. Jean-Jacques Rousseau's hardly rates the effort to preserve it (though it did provide the signature tune for French-Swiss television for a time).

Nik Bärtsch's Ronin, by contrast, definitely swings. But in spite of its funky drive that compares with Miles Davis's inimitable electric period, this jazz is also thoughtful. It offers a meditation on what music can do as well as a dialogue with its listeners.

Bärtsch, who has studied philosophy, has enticingly described Ronin's music as like exploring a city and "a kind of acoustical coral reef".

Like light in water

"Like light in water, sounds and resonances appear in the air," he writes in the notes to his latest CD, nine pieces recorded live over the past three years. "Strange creatures seem to swim by our ears. Where are we when we hear music?"

Completely unpretentious in person, Bärtsch, with his shaved head, goatee beard and baggy Buddhist-monk pants, might look like a man with a message. In practice, Ronin seems to take as much from its audience as it gives.

Bärtsch recalls that at one of Ronin’s first concerts, in an underground club, a dog began to howl just before a climactic moment. Instead of being thrown off-beat, the band "was unleashed and played its way into a trance". More important, "the audience relaxed and became more attentive. The energy level in the room rocketed."

He adds: "Neighbourhood dogs don't attend our concerts much anymore." But for Ronin, "our audiences have a similar effect on the band as a producer [does] in a recording studio."

Family affair

On 10 September 2010 at Zurich's Exil club, Bärtsch's uncle and the father of drummer Kaspar Rast were in the audience, and the session had a family feel. It was as if the four musicians set out to entertain each other in the family living room. Judging from the grins on their faces when they swung through some particularly intricate pieces, they succeeded.

The core of the group is Bärtsch — on keyboards and sometimes plucking the piano strings — and Rast, a near-genius who's up there with John Hiseman and Elvin Jones as a dancing-style drummer. Sha is the sputtering wind specialist on the formidably difficult bass clarinet, with Thomy Jordi the newest arrival on electric bass.

What makes Rast so amazing is his discretion. He meets every beat but he never overwhelms the other members of the group. So you may miss the complexities of his playing unless you listen closely to the drums — a good reason for buying Ronin's CDs.

SwissView and after

Bärtsch and Rast have been together in Ronin for 11 years. I first came across their music as the accompaniment to a television filler series featuring Switzerland seen from a helicopter. It became one of Swiss TV's most successful programmes (SwissView), [available online and as DVDs](http://www.swissview.com). Be sure to pick the Blue-ray versions. The series producer paid special tribute to Bärtsch and his dreamy mood music as contributing to the series’ success.

There were echoes of Bärtsch’s Swissview score at the Exil session, as also of Morton Feldman's meditative soundscapes, Dave Brubeck's driving rhythms, the Modern Jazz Quartet's more adventurous pieces (Midsömmer, for example), even Steve Reich's pulsing works.

To me this is a sign of Ronin's maturity rather than a failure of imagination. Earlier recordings scrupulously avoided sounding like anyone else, creating spare tonal environments that had a Japanese resonance (Bärtsch has called it Zen Funk and Ronin means a samurai without a master).

Fusion without failings

Today they seem more laid back, willing to let any kind of music in without worrying about its integrity. Any sound, you feel, could fit. Of course that's not true, but it is very relaxing as well as exciting to hear music that way (the Sonny Rollins approach to jazz).

Listeners who need to position Ronin's music could call it fusion, but that label covers a multitude of sins that Bärtsch does not commit. Each piece is entitled Module x (a number)., The music does sound as if he has thought hard about what should logically follow the other sessions. But it doesn't make tunes easy to identify or keep the titles in your mind.

Bärtsch in his liner notes to CDs and website [http://www.nikbaertsch.com] is spare with autobiographical details, though perfectly down-to-earth in conversation and announcing on stage. I'm presuming he prefers to let the music speak for itself.

Music, as everyone knows, is impossible to put into words. So, too, really is philosophy. And if philosophy is about finding a reason to die, jazz seems to offer a reason to live, which pretty much comes to the same thing.

You can find Ronin's agenda at Exil on its website (http://www.exil.ch). There's a marvellous 2008 interview with Bärtsch where he cites James Brown, The Meters and Prince among his influences. It's by Stuart Nicholson at jazz.com.