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.