Swiss keyboardist Nik Bärtsch has been leading Ronin since 2001. The group was a quintet for most of its lifespan, but he’s pared it down to a quartet since 2012: Stefan “Sha” Haslebacher on bass and contrabass clarinet, Thomy Jordi on bass, and Kaspar Rast on drums. The group has released five studio albums—2002’s Randori, 2004’s Rea, 2006’s Stoa, 2008’s Holon, and 2010’s Llyrìa—and two live albums, a single disc in 2003 and a double disc in 2012.
Ronin‘s music has evolved slightly over the 17 years they’ve been at it, but Bärtsch’s vision is one of rigorous discipline, so overall change has been gradual and minimal. The pieces, which are called moduls and numbered (“Modul 15,” “Modul 22,” “Modul 30,” etc.), are built around small cellular figures, just a few notes, that repeat precisely, over and over, varying only slightly. There are elements of Philip Glass-esque minimalism, Japanese ritual music, Stevie Wonder‘s ticking funk, and a dash of jazz—the latter element becoming slightly more prominent with each album since Bärtsch signed with ECM for Stoa. There are even things you could call “solos” now…sometimes.
As with a lot of electronic music, the excitement comes from the way the little repeating figures that make up the compositions bounce off each other. As Bärtsch does one thing on the keyboard, Jordi comes in and out on bass, Rast maintains a rock-steady beat, and Sha comes the closest to soloing in a traditionally “jazzy” way, though his phrases are staccato and percussive, sometimes clicking the valves and other times playing short, incantatory bursts of notes until you’re about to slip into a trance. The energy level is high, but there’s never any sense of abandon. This is music that’s all about four people performing individual tasks perfectly, in order to create a cumulative effect. It’s as close as jazz gets to the precision of Kraftwerk.
Awase, the sixth Ronin studio album and their first release since 2012’s Live, is their fifth release through ECM. But it appears to be licensed from Bärtsch’s own Ronin Rhythm label, because it’s available on Bandcamp:
There are a few things about Awase that make it unique in the Ronin catalog. For the first time, Bärtsch has revisited an old tune, re-recording “Modul 36” from Stoa. There’s also a piece here called “Modul 34” that, if they’re numbered chronologically, dates from the same era, though it’s never been heard before. He’s also allowed one of the other bandmembers to contribute a composition: “A” is by Haslebacher. It starts off softer and more human than any of the moduls, with its author releasing a short phrase that hisses and slowly swells as Bärtsch plays an equally minimal piano melody. It takes a full 90 seconds for Rast to join. While his beat is steady, it seems to swing just a tiny bit more, and have just a dash more looseness and swing, than the boss would normally allow. It’s almost like Bärtsch has given his team permission to loosen up, this one time, and even he sounds slightly more passionate than usual.
None of this discussion of minimalism, discipline, and restraint should suggest that Ronin‘s music is boring. They’re able to sustain a remarkable level of focus and intensity over extended periods. At 18:19, “Modul 60” is the longest piece the group has recorded to date, and it’s also one of their most exciting, featuring repeated rises and falls and even something like a crescendo. Awase is a highly assured album by one of the most interesting groups in European classical/jazz/funk. Ronin have been away too long; it’s good to have them back.