The Swiss pianist Nik Bartsch has been leading his band Ronin for over a decade. A quintet since 2006, the band has made three studio albums for ECM and now comes this double live album. In all that time there has been just one change of personnel. Original electric bassist Bjorn Mayer was replaced by Thomy Jordi last year, and he joined Bartsch on piano and Fender Rhodes, Sha on bass clarinets and alto saxophone, Kaspar Rast on drums and Andi Pupato on percussion.
This consistency of personnel is vital for a band which is very much an entity, sharing not only a musical philosphy but also hours and hours of playing time, some in rehearsal and in the studio but, most crucially,a lot in live performance with an audience.
Bartsch writes in the liner notes to this collection of live performances made between 2009 and 2011, in rooms both small and large, and from Tokyo to Gateshead: “… people from all over the world are in our audiences, each with their own special presence and unique lifelong listening experience. So our audiences have a similar effect on the band as a producer in a recording studio, listening both critically and enthusiastically; the one and the other make for an exciting mix. After all, music only exists if someone hears it – and that influences its gestalt.”
He goes on: “Musical empathy is an evolutionary quality, extending from the time long before we became humans – and that is why communal music-making is not luxury; it is an existential need.”
I’ve been in the audience at a Ronin concert twice – first at St Paul’s in Bristol, and then last year at King’s Place as part of the London Jazz Festival – and can vouch for the fact that there is something very special that happens with a band that embraces its audience in this way. The Ronin audience certainly feels the love! And sends it back enthusiastically.
Some of the music on these discs will be familiar from the studio recordings, some pieces are extended or stretched out of shape by longer introductions or interludes. All are called Modul something, of course, and all have that heightened intensity that the musicians bring to a live performance. It’s extraordinary that music that has to be this disciplined for its effect – tightly interwoven rhythms, exactingly timed exchanges – can also sound so spontaneous and, in a strange way, loose.
Try Modul 45, for example, which opens disc two. Meyer plays a rotating bass riff but constantly reworks it in terms of tone and attack, while Bartsch inserts his characteristic single note pulse. Sometimes it becomes impossible to separate bass guitar from bass notes on the piano. Drums and percussion join the increasingly intense deep funk before the whole thing reaches the serene zen pool of Bartsch’s high piano riff which lies at the Modul’s heart. Then I get into that impossible game where I try to predict Rast’s drum accents. Meanwhile Meyer improvises and Pupato adds the high sparkle. Sha adds long delicate saxophone notes with the breathiness of a shakuhachi flute. And then the harmonies begin to sweeten and the pulse to strengthen as Pupato explores more of his bells and bowls. Then it all erupts with an almost middle-Eastern flavour, before Bartsch begins to solo while still maintaining a rolling riff. And the whole thing ends with an earthquake of drums and percussion. It’s a 13-minute journey that has taken the band and the audience half way around the world and through a whole gamut of vibes.
For anyone who has been to a Ronin concert, this goes a long way to recreating the euphoric enjoyment that it instills; for those who have never witnessed the band live, it will give you as good a taste as you could expect to get without actually being there.
And, needless to say, being there really is the highest – in every sense – form of enjoyment when it comes to this extraordinary band and its extraordinary music.