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Jazz - Released September 7, 2012 | ECM

Hi-Res Booklet Distinctions 4F de Télérama - Sélection FIP - Hi-Res Audio
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Jazz - Released September 17, 2010 | ECM

Distinctions Hi-Res Audio
Those who loved the spidery funk of Ronin's earliest releases Randori, Live, and Rea may initially be put off by the band's latest effort. Easily the "jazziest" Ronin disc to date, Llyria retains much of the precision of the band's previous output, and yet sounds ever so slightly more human than anything they've done before. As always in the past, the compositions (known as "Moduls") are made up of small melodic cells which are repeated and alternated in various patterns. This time out, though, it feels like there's more improvisation (carefully structured, methodical improvisation, of course) going on. The pieces feel less like beat loops and more like the music of a band. "Modul 55" is practically a typical ECM piano ballad, with occasional humming bass clarinet phrases. The album's opening track, "Modul 48," is nearly ambient, with almost no rhythmic forward motion at all. "Modul 47" actually builds to repeated crescendi, the rhythm section constructing one suspenseful arc after another as Bärtsch's keyboard figures recall soundtracks to '70s urban thrillers. In the track's final minutes, it slows down to a half-speed rumble and erupts in almost hip-hop like bass throbs. Ultimately, Llyria may be slightly more organic and emotional than previous Ronin discs, but it's very much of a piece with Bärtsch's overall musical vision, and longtime listeners will enjoy it as much as new ones. ~ Phil Freeman
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Contemporary Jazz - Released May 4, 2018 | ECM

Hi-Res Booklet
Once again, the spine, if not the heart of Awase isn’t Nik Bärtsch’s piano. Because whenever the Zurich musician gets his band Ronin going, he builds his music as well as his improvisations around Kaspar Rast’s XXL ability on the drums. As often with this self-proclaimed zen funk gang, the hypnotic power of rhythmic motifs gives a supreme unity to this jazz that sounds like no other. The term Awase comes from martial arts, meaning “moving together” in the sense of matching energies. A fitting metaphor for the dynamic precision, tessellated grooves and balletic minimalism of Bärtsch’s crew. Six years have passed since Ronin’s last release, a live recording in Europe and Japan between 2009 and 2011. In the meantime, the quintet has turned into a quartet and integrated a new bassist, Thomy Jordi. A completely new look for Ronin version 2018… A mutation that delivers a new form of freedom and flexibility in their approach to compositions. Their interactions and energy seem to compound! Once again it’s very hard to resist to the hypnotic power of the motifs they string together with superb fluidity over the 65 minutes of Awase. © Max Dembo/Qobuz
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Jazz - Released February 15, 2008 | ECM

Pianist Nik Bärtsch's Zurich quintet Ronin has released a handful of recordings, but Holon is only the second released in the United States. When Stoa was issued in 2006, it was like this startling blast of air. Was it jazz? Was it minimalist classical music? Was it acoustic techno? Bärtsch calls it "zen funk." OK, fair enough, but in actuality, while it bears traces and borrows elements from all of the aforementioned genres, Ronin is its own animal, its own sound, its own complex yet utterly accessible musical identity or, better, brand. They have toured relentlessly all over the world, and as a result, this quintet is not only well seasoned, but also it has taken the music up the ladder a couple of rungs. Stoa revealed the taut, interlocking pulses, rhythms, and grooves, all stacked atop one another with nearly mathematical precision. Given the trance-like nature of some of it, it was easy to get hypnotized and allow its subtler elements, those having to do with improvisation, however tightly scripted, into the various sections of its numbered "moduls," as Bärtsch calls his compositions, as if they are all of a piece. The Ronin personnel have not undergone changes since Stoa: Sha, bass clarinets, alto saxophone; Andi Pupato, percussion; Kaspar Rast, drums; Björn Meyer, drums. Most of these players have been with Bärtsch since the beginning and as a unit have learned to trust one another to keep frames in this music while allowing for a certain looseness that makes it more physical, more driven, and consequently more intuitive and intimate: check the breakbeats and Bärtsch's solo on "Modul 41_17," where Sha moves the pulse by pitch from one sphere to the next and Bärtsch plays between the pulse and breakbeats of Rast. Basslines and percussive elements are rumbling under, pushing toward who knows what, but it's going somewhere. It actually "rocks" more than rolls, but the tension is exquisite, so much so that when Pupato introduces a cowbell and some other brighter percussion instruments in certain places, it startles the listener, like a minor shock. It is only then one realizes that the groove is mutated, shifted, turned toward another rhythmic sphere -- Meyer's carrying more notes in his groove now -- another set of pitches and contrasts and groove without the pulse seeming to change at all. Philip Glass this isn't. Steve Reich this isn't. Mogwai on pianos or Thomas Brinkmann with jazz instruments this might be. At the end of over 14 minutes, one is almost relieved for the quietly elliptical beginning of "Modul 39_8," where a single piano chord mysteriously creeps out from the shadow, carrying a bit of it into the left- and right-hand chords, before a shimmering rim shot ushers in a pulse that gradually becomes sinister, brooding, yet also as beautiful as a moonlit pool that is seemingly still on the surface but is roiling with activity beneath. Different rhythmic statements come from Pupato and Rast as Bärtsch goes his own way, investigating a sparse melodic ideal to see how it looks in light of the grooves coming together in the middle. The bassline is a simple note, pulsed -- until it changes, and the entire thing becomes a funky dance lock; here is where breaks, piano as a real percussion instrument, and a popping electric bassline move the listener toward funk regardless of where she was at during the beginning of the piece. Dynamic elements change course over its duration no less than four times, as do harmonic engagements of what is truly polymetric invention, and transforms itself into an Eastern modal groove without losing its danceable edge. By the final cut, "Modul 44," which begins with nearly a full minute of silence, very quiet bells jingling before Bärtsch and the group enter fully and immediately, seemingly in the middle of a phrase, but as Sha begins to allow the lyric line pattern to emerge, Bärtsch suddenly comes at it from an entirely different angle, playing another repetition, changing nuances between the left and right hands, shading his chords, and after another short, skeletally spacious break, Sha begins his own solo, followed by an emerging bassline that echoes the same melodic line but louder, rumbling -- never booming -- over everything. In the mix, drums and bass are out front, piano, percussion, and reeds are hovering in the backdrop, shimmering with ostinatii and minimal arpeggios before kicking into a different kind of high gear where everything is in your face. Uh huh, this is on-the-good-foot music. The most beautiful thing about Holon is how "live" it all feels. You can see in the mind's eye and fully hear this music in a setting where an audience is urging the band on, not just listening, but moving. How much better does it get than that? The more things stay the same in Ronin, the more they change. ~ Thom Jurek
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Jazz - Released February 24, 2006 | ECM

He may call it "Zen Funk," but the real question is, what the hell is this? Swiss pianist and composer Nik Bartsch's Ronin have issued their ECM debut, Stoa, the label well-known for its icy sounding, spacious jazz. ECM has been pushing the envelope for nearly 40 years, but with Ronin, they've pushed it beyond the pale into God knows what. This is not a bad thing, however. Ronin was a group created with the idea of playing live. And over the course of three previous records issued only in Europe, the band -- birthed in 2001 when Bartsch was 30 -- plays a highly disciplined style of music that relies on interlocking rhythm, groove, and groups of tight, short melodic statements all stacked on top of one another. There are those who will immediately think of Steve Reich's minimalist discipline, but there are no equations to be solved here. It's math music to be sure, but its also got the good foot, the deep bass, and the drum ostinatos of James Brown & His Famous Flames or the JB's, or even the deep soul tight backbeat toughness of the best Stax rhythm sections. Bartsch has listened to everything from Reich and Terry Riley to techno and the Necks (there is a beautiful nod to them at the beginning of the opener "Modul 36"). Bartsch's melodic ideas are trance-like and hypnotic. They come across more as rhythmic statements than actual melodic ideas. There are Eastern aesthetics at work here in the stripped-down elementalism in this music. It's full of discipline and is depersonalized so that the ensemble comes off as one voice. It's clear Bartsch has spent time listening to some of the best experimental electronic music by artists such as Apparat, Thomas Brinkmann, Pole, Basic Channel, and Pan Sonic. And while there is improvisation in Ronin's attack, it's structured and tightly woven into Bartsch's compositional structures. What makes the band tick is the rhythm section as Bartsch works his modulated and shuffled lyrical fragments against the section, assisted ably and minimally by Sha on contrabass and bass clarinets (who acts as another part of the rhythm section more than as a soloist or melodist). It's bassist Bjorn Meyer, percussionist Andi Pupato, and especially the brilliant drummer Kaspar Rast making it all happen in real time. Bartsch plays a standard concert grand, but he also uses a Fender Rhodes. There is a sleek chrome and matte black, post-postmodernist, Euro-funky attack in sections of "Modul 33." It begins with a near dissonant ambience -- created by small percussion instruments and bell-like gongs -- that David Toop would cream over. But it's toward the center where the action is: Bartsch puts the overdrive in his left-hand work in the middle register in a series of modulations that start from the middle of a melody and work both forward and back, always returning to a center that is really the only constant. The popping hi hat and hushed snare usher in Sha, who shines here with his breath control and taut, stuttering, articulate blend of rhythm and harmonics that -- reminiscent of Roland Kirk in the '70s -- create a locking groove for Bartsch to play short, fleeting chords before beginning his knotty theme contrapuntally against the rhythm section. There is nothing extra in this music, no room for metaphor or metonymy or the self-expression jazz has at its center for soloists. Time signatures shift methodically, and the reined in groove becomes the entire proceeding. The piano and stick work of Rast create the loping, hard, trance airlock that is "Modul 38 _17," the set closer. Over 12 minutes in length, the listener is pulled into one sphere or the other, that of the piano or the percussion, though both come to the same middle to reach outward. What sounds like a loop is actually played live without overdubbing or editing. Bartsch plays both Rhodes and acoustic piano, one in each hand, covering the ground as Sha, Meyer, and Pupato create their own series of continuous hypno-grooves. Bartsch shifts the melodic idea or stacks and cuts it as the piece evolves, becoming ever more pronounced and forceful, leaving the listener exhausted by its end. While it is an utter pleasure to listen to these five long pieces -- nothing is less than nine minutes here, which shows just how this music is played live and to experience the taut control and the tenacity it takes to play this music in a concert setting. Stoa may not be jazz, or "Zen Funk," it may not be anything at all, and yet, that is what makes Ronin's Stoa such a powerful and illuminating experience. It's one of those recordings that can be enjoyed by more open-minded jazz fans, but the true audience for Stoa lies in fans of the Necks (nothing quite so blissful here though, folks) and experimental techno fans if they can get past the notion that all this music is made live. ECM has raised the bar once more by recording and releasing a truly compelling, curious, maddening, and provocative Edition of Creative Musicians with Stoa. Ronin is a band of the future, one that has nowhere to go but out into the sonic stratosphere. Judging by this set, it will be exciting to witness where they go from here. ~ Thom Jurek
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Contemporary Jazz - Released May 4, 2018 | ECM

Booklet
Once again, the spine, if not the heart of Awase isn’t Nik Bärtsch’s piano. Because whenever the Zurich musician gets his band Ronin going, he builds his music as well as his improvisations around Kaspar Rast’s XXL ability on the drums. As often with this self-proclaimed zen funk gang, the hypnotic power of rhythmic motifs gives a supreme unity to this jazz that sounds like no other. The term Awase comes from martial arts, meaning “moving together” in the sense of matching energies. A fitting metaphor for the dynamic precision, tessellated grooves and balletic minimalism of Bärtsch’s crew. Six years have passed since Ronin’s last release, a live recording in Europe and Japan between 2009 and 2011. In the meantime, the quintet has turned into a quartet and integrated a new bassist, Thomy Jordi. A completely new look for Ronin version 2018… A mutation that delivers a new form of freedom and flexibility in their approach to compositions. Their interactions and energy seem to compound! Once again it’s very hard to resist to the hypnotic power of the motifs they string together with superb fluidity over the 65 minutes of Awase. © Max Dembo/Qobuz
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Jazz - Released April 6, 2018 | ECM