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The music doesn’t so much ‘happen’ as accrue over a period of minutes where nothing much appears to be happening, but in an instant one is suddenly confronted by an intense, finely-tuned machine whose constituent parts are hurtling forward, impressively in tandem and in devastatingly effective sequence. This music is incredibly exciting in concert. There’s such a deep funky, accessible groove to what Ronin do, utterly blowing out the water any criticism that their music is merely a cerebral exercise in sub-dividing the beats in a bar. Years ago Robert Fripp used to talk about music for the head, heart and hips and the ritual groove music of Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin certainly ticks all of those boxes!
- Blogger Sid Smith reviewing Ronin live in Gateshead, UK

After three ECM studio albums – “Stoa” (recorded 2005), “Holon” (2007) and “Llyrìa” (2010) – a live double album from Nik Bärtsch’s ensemble, recorded around the world. Here are selections from German festivals – the Enjoy Jazz Festival, the Leipziger Jazztage, and Jazz Baltica, as well as club and concert recordings from Amsterdam’s Bimhuis, The Sage in Gateshead, the Vienna Radiokulturhaus and Lörrach’s Burghof. This is Ronin playing to audiences large and small in the period 2009 to 2011, each gig a unique event. We move from one acoustic space to another, yet experience this album as if it were a real-time concert with its own intentionality and sustained, insistent power. The focused playing with its hypnotically-layered rhythms, the production, and the integrity of the source recordings all contribute to a natural sense of continuity. Bärtsch emphasizes that “it’s an album of music from all over the place, but it’s also an album brought together in a studio, to find a logical dramaturgy.” Compilation can also be a creative process, and “Live” is more than a ‘document’. Ronin percussionist Andi Pupato recorded all the shows from the stage, and Bärtsch and Manfred Eicher mixed the selected tracks – chosen by the band from more than 50 concerts – at Gérard de Haro’s Studios la Buissonne earlier this year.

As leader and composer Bärtsch runs a disciplined band, but certain parameters of his music are open to interpretation and improvisation. “Most of the pieces heard here have had three or four years of development in the live situation so there are obvious differences in sound from the original studio versions. There is a different flow. Beyond that, in the pieces that we’ve selected, the momentum of the interlockings and interventions is generally much bigger. One of the aspects that can change, for instance, is the duration of parts of the music in a live context.” He points to the extended introduction to ‘Modul 17”, a piece recorded in Tokyo, where the band has been very positively received. “It’s difficult to generalize about audiences since every audience is made up of individuals who respond differently, but what I can say is that the Japanese people have a culture of waiting. This is a positive aspect in their traditional music and ritual theatre and it heightens anticipation. I like that idea very much, and it connects to our own ideas.”

Those ideas are related to the gradual processes of Minimalism, and a Minimal Music festival at Amsterdam’s Bimhuis provided the context for the version of “Modul 22” heard here. Much of Ronin’s touring is on the jazz circuit, and Bärtsch is pleased that two tracks on “Live” are from Mannheim’s Enjoy Jazz: “That was the first major festival to support the band and they’ve consistently had us back: concerts there were always at a high energetic level.” He also acknowledges that the group really fits no preconceived format. “Our music is somewhere between jazz and modern composition, progressive pop, ritual music, groove music in general... This means that we find ourselves in very different environments. Sometimes we’ve played regular pop festivals with people dancing and you find yourself thinking: this is an interesting response to music with improvised elements and ambitions as composition and art!” So dancers are preferred? “No, I wouldn’t say that. I like to think that the most serious listeners, the ones who sit very still, are dancing inside.”

Amongst other attributes, “Live” marks the end of an era. Bassist Björn Mayer has left Ronin after ten creative years to pursue personal musical goals and Bärtsch views this collection partly as a tribute to a colleague and friend. “We parted on the very best of terms and, after a full year of transition, could do a smooth changeover, musically and socially. Björn’s brilliant bass solos here – especially on ‘Modul 41-17’,’Modul 22’ and ‘45’ – show an important aspect of the band live. It was an idea of ours that the bass player could take over – in the bass and tenor registers – the kind of solos that are more often played by instruments in the higher registers.”

New bassist Thomy Jordi plays on the concluding “Modul 55”, recorded in Salzau. “Sometimes when you play a piece for a long time live you find a different tempo. This version of ‘55’ has a very slow tempo, and a feeling of enormous calmness, the band is alert yet relaxed in a way that can probably only be found in the live situation.”

Jordi, who comes to Ronin via anarchic comedian Helge Schneider’s band the Firefuckers and a period working as a literary translator in Tokyo, is already influencing the sound of the band. He, Björn Meyer and Nik Bärtsch discuss the bass role in Ronin, the changeover, and other responsibilities in an interesting interview on Nik’s website: www.nikbaertsch.com. There, Jordi notes that “Ronin offers radical new solutions for many aspects in improvised and composed music... You end up improvising in landscapes that you never walked before. These landscapes provide unambiguous clarity, which leads you to unambiguous playing – an aspect I often miss in traditional jazz-concepts, where the postulate of ‘free-interpretation’ calls for arbitrary overplay... In Ronin’s music, each musician has great control and vision not only of the sounds he's producing, but also of the sound layers that develop in combination with other instruments. In these layers, the instruments merge like parts in a symphonic orchestra.” These qualities are much in evidence on “Live”.

Ronin play the Dresden Tonlagen Festival on October 11, and then fly to the US for a lightning tour of East and West coasts, with dates including San Francisco, Portland, the Seattle Earshot Festival, and New York’s Poisson Rouge. At the month’s end they are back at the Zurich Kunsthaus (October 27) and return to Mannheim’s Enjoy Jazz Festival on October 29.

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