by Phil Freeman
Keyboardist Nik Bärtsch’s group Ronin has been together for just over a decade, releasing their first studio album, Randori, in 2002. That was followed by their first live album a year later, and Rea in 2004, all on the small Tonus label. In 2006, Bärtsch signed with ECM, and Ronin has made three more studio albums since: 2006′s Stoa, 2008′s Holon, and 2010′s Llyrìa. Now, he and the band are capping off their first 10 years with a double live CD, one which also serves as a valedictory for bassist Björn Meyer, who has recently left the group.
Ronin’s music has evolved considerably over the course of their five studio albums. The compositions, all by Bärtsch, are called “Moduls,” and numbered. Early ones, like “Modul 15,” which opens Randori, or the three-part “Modul 8_9,” which follows it, are remorselessly disciplined exercises in minimalist groove construction. Bärtsch’s keyboard contributions are frequently little more than stabs at an organ, as drummer Kaspar Rast and bassist Meyer lock into what can begin to sound like a loop. Beginning with Rea, bass clarinet player Stefan “Sha” Haslebacher joins the ensemble, and adds cryptic melodies but rarely takes seriously outgoing solos. The music has funk, but it’s a mechanistic, subdued sort of funk, like Stevie Wonder being performed by small robot spiders. Rast is one of the most inhumanly precise drummers alive; it’s easy to imagine the other bandmembers getting so lost in his perfectly measured patterns that they have to shake themselves out of their trances in order to come in at the right time.
Over the course of his ECM tenure, though, Bärtsch’s music has grown steadily jazzier; the version of “Modul 48″ here, for example, features extended piano and clarinet soloing, and drum crescendos worthy of a mainstream post-bop ensemble. The set list on this two-CD set includes versions from almost the band’s entire history—”Modul 22″ from Rea; “Modul 35″ from Stoa; “Modul 41_17,” “Modul 42,” and “Modul 45″ from Holon; “Modul 47,” “Modul 48,” and “Modul 55″ from Llyrìa; and perhaps most surprisingly, “Modul 17,” which was recorded on the 2003 live album but has never been on a Ronin studio release. “17″ is an excellent example of how the material on the new disc has been reshaped; where the original had a pulsing, shuffling groove that showcased an almost Doors-circa-L.A. Woman electric piano, the new version features Bärtsch on acoustic piano, and the bass clarinet does much of the melodic heavy lifting. Furthermore, the groove has become more pointillistic, reminiscent of Steve Reich‘s Music for 18 Musicians.
The older a track is, the more likely Bärtsch and company are to compress it in performance: “Modul 17″ and “Modul 22″ are both shorter than their previous versions, while ECM-era pieces get stretched. “Modul 41_17″ and “Modul 42,” for example, gain nearly two minutes of playing time each, and “Modul 45″ passes the 13-minute mark, compared with the 9:41 of the studio version. The most radical expansion, though, is saved for “Modul 47,” which was eight minutes long on Llyrìa and is 13 minutes long here, with the addition of an extended, atmospheric introductory passage. Every piece here, though, no matter how old or new, is altered more than enough to make this a necessary purchase even for those who have every previous Ronin album. But the quality of the playing, and the uniqueness of the band’s compositional style and arrangements, makes this an excellent entry point for newcomers to the Nik Bärtsch soundworld, too.