Nik Bärtsch is a keyboardist, composer, improviser, and bandleader whose recordings showcase his highly architectural, original, "ritual groove" approach that combines elements of jazz, classical minimalism, funk, and rock -- almost a genre unto itself. His music focuses on interlocking rhythmic development, in which bandmembers shift in and out as soloists and melodic leads, while the rest weave together tightly knit, percussive structures that propel the pieces forward. He described his sound in an interview saying, "...music is an art of motion, and thus akin to dancing, an ecstatic groove and an ascetic awareness of form and sound in composed music are not mutually exclusive. They can form combinations that take our senses by surprise."
A native and resident of Zurich, Switzerland born in 1971, he began his nine-year-long piano studies at age nine, and also briefly took up clarinet. Listening to blues, jazz, and string quartets, Béla Bartók, Igor Stravinsky, and ethnic musics from Japan, Greece, Romania, and Sweden, have all shaped his personalized music. Initially influenced by Chick Corea, Bärtsch attended the Zurich Musikhochschule, then studied philosophy, linguistics, and musicology at the University of Zurich.
While attending school, he began listening to 20th century modernist, avant-garde composers John Cage, Morton Feldman, and Steve Reich, thus fusing the multiplicity of disciplines. In 1980, he first met drummer Kaspar Rast, who became a rhythmic fixture in his ensembles and in Mobile and Ronin. He performed and toured with the European guitarist Harald Haerter before performing and recording solo and trio efforts, leading to his initial small ensembles for the Swiss-based Tonus label. When Mobile evolved into Ronin in 2001, Bärtsch established his distinct and unique ritual groove music, playing every Monday night at the night club Montags in Zurich, and attracting attention for his spiritual, minimalist, ethnic, rhythm & blues elevated music, which has generally been called "zen funk." Over the years, he has retained that regular early week gig while touring greater Europe, reaching Canada and the U.S.
ECM Records owner Manfred Eicher recognized not only Bärtsch's original approach, but its similarity to the music the label has championed since the early '70s. He signed them, beginning with the album Stoa in 2006 (2007 in the United States). Ronin expanded to a quintet with stalwart Rast, percussionist Andi Pupato, bassist Björn Meyer, and saxophonist/bass clarinetist/guitarist Sha. Holon followed in 2008 to wider acclaim. In 2009, Bärtsch and a business partner opened the club Exil in Zurich, and he became one of three co-artistic directors of the city's Apples and Olives Festival.
Bärtsch, ever confident in his band's musical potential, expanded his composing palette. Moving further afield from the "zen funk" that typified both Mobile and Ronin up to that point, he began employing elements of modern classical composition in their repertoire. This new direction was documented on 2010's Llyrìa. Ronin Live, issued in 2012, documented concert recordings from 2009 through 2011.
After Ronin's intense touring and recording activity of the previous few years, Bärtsch settled into running his club and working on Apples and Olives, spending time with his family, and teaching.
Bärtsch formally resurrected Mobile in late 2014. The quartet included Sha, Rast, and new drummer Nicolas Stocker (Bells for Pony, Marylane). The bandleader extended the ensemble for his next recording with a string quintet that included violinist Etienne Abelin (his co-artistic director of Apples and Olives). This group recorded Continuum in Lugano in March of 2015, with Eicher as producer. It was released a year later ahead of an international tour.
Bartsch reconvened Ronin in early 2017 after a six-year hiatus; he trimmed the band from quintet to quartet, and hired a new bassist in Thomy Jordi. In October, they entered Studios La Buissonne with producer Manfred Eicher. They revisited early Bartsch modules alongside new compositions including a piece by reedman Sha (it marked the first time a non-Bartsch composition was recorded by the group). The studio sessions netted the full-length Awase -- a term from martial arts that means "moving together" -- issued by ECM in May 2018. ~ Michael G. Nastos