Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin: Zen funk

Swiss keyboardist brings ‘ritual groove music’ back to Portland

Nik Bärtsch’s spacious, mesmerizing “Zen-funk” resists pigeonholes. Generally labeled as jazz, it springs from a variety of sources: Thelonious Monk’s pithy rhythmic transformations; Count Basie and Duke Ellington’s smart, spare yet colorful orchestrations; Lennie Tristano’s cool phrasing and interlocking figures; Ran Blake and more, including other artists on his record label, ECM, best known for cool, spare, atmospheric sounds.

But in an interview with me before his first Portland appearance in 2011, Bärtsch also cited non-jazz, non-icy influences: drum-‘n’-bass master Photek; modernist composers Igor Stravinsky and Morton Feldman; bass lines indebted to soul godfather James Brown and Prince-style funk; drum parts straight out of New Orleans legends the Meters; repetitive, evolving figures à la minimalist pioneer Steve Reich; and various folk music styles, including Romanian and Japanese.

That emphasis on music that makes your body distinguishes his band Ronin from most other ECM artists, and helps explain its appeal beyond jazz audiences. Although PDX Jazz is bringing them back to Portland for the fourth time Saturday at a jazz club, Portland’s Jack London Revue,  Ronin performs regularly in dance and rock clubs.

Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin. Photo: Jonas Holthaus.

“We have a great mix in our audience and in our [Zurich] club EXIL every week,” he told me. “Sometimes even teens come with their parents. Our concert is the only place where they go out together. Young audiences can feel if you are alive or already mummified by tradition. The tradition should nourish today’s music — but as a humus, not as a power-abusing museum with no connections to the street. The music should naturally develop out of our lives, not out of theory.”

Trained in both jazz and classical music, Bärtsch has evolved a gripping, groove-oriented sound that’s partly composed, partly improvised yet smoothly cohesive. “I like rhythms, instruments and groove balances — intelligent meditative music and strong ritual groove music,” Bärtsch told me then. 

That describes Ronin’s 2012 performance at Portland Mission Theater, with Reichian pulses floating over a sizzling, polyrhythmic groove primarily concocted by drummer Kaspar Rast, a childhood friend Bärtsch has been performing with for more than three decades. It’s often pretty, easily graspable, with obvious appeal to the Medeski, Martin & Wood/Bad Plus crowd, yet repays deeper, repeated exploration. As I wrote in ArtsWatch, Bärtsch’s spare, minimal lines unfolded over long, gradually evolving cycles — a clear debt to minimalism. He revels in the low end of the spectrum, worrying a left-hand riff on acoustic piano while playing a simple melody in the middle of an electric keyboard with his right, and sometimes reaching into the piano to pluck and strike the strings directly for percussive effect. Harmonic changes followed structural shifts in the music and even the changes in the low lighting, which favored shadowy blues and purples.

Bärtsch’s inspirations transcend not just jazz, but also music itself. A teenage encounter with Akira Kurosawa’s classic film Ran triggered a lifelong attraction to Japanese aesthetics, and he’s a black belt in aikido. Hence his band’s name, Ronin, after the pre-modern Japanese freelance warriors affiliated with no master, and the title of their enthralling new album, Awase, a term from martial arts that means “moving together” in the sense of matching energies. (He also has an acoustic ensemble, Mobile.) The spareness of much Japanese art permeates his less-is-more piano parts.

In a press release accompanying Awase, Bärtsch describes Ronin’s changes after a six-year layoff: “greater transparency, more interaction, more joy in every performance.” Drummer Rast returns, along with fellow longtime colleague Stefan Haslebacher, the bass clarinetist and alto saxophonist known as Sha, and new bassist Thomy Jordi. What hasn’t changed is the band’s resistance to easy classification. Jazz or funk? Improvised or composed? Avoiding such defining distinctions is part of the point. In Ronin, “we are interested in social and musical coherence with a maximum of individual and group freedom,” Bärtsch explained, “in the musical strategy [in which] as a listener, you often don’t know what is composed, arranged, improvised or instantaneously composed in a performance.”

Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin perform Saturday at Portland’s Jack London Revue, 529 SW 4th Ave.

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