Nik Bärtsch named his band Ronin after the pre-modern Japanese freelance warriors affiliated with no master, and his sixth and latest album, Llyria, after a recently discovered deep-sea creature so strange that biologists can't classify it. Likewise, the 39-year-old Swiss pianist-composer resists pigeonholing. Though his "ritual groove music" appears on what's primarily a jazz label (ECM), and his concert Saturday is part of the Portland Jazz Festival, BÃ¤rtsch's Ronin performs regularly in dance and rock clubs.
"We have a great mix in our audience and in our [Zurich] club EXIL every week," he told WW. "Sometimes even teens come with their parents. Our concert is the only place where they go out together." In its double bill with Portland's similarly widely appealing Blue Cranes, Ronin (drummer Kaspar Rast, bassist Thomy Jordi, percussionist Andi Pupato, and Sha on clarinets and sax) should demonstrate that truly improvised music isn't just for old people.
Bärtsch acknowledges his inspiration from jazz legends: 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; and Ran Blake. But he also cites non-jazz 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.
"I like rhythms, instruments and groove balances—intelligent meditative music and strong ritual groove music," Bärtsch explains.
His inspirations transcend music. 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. The spareness of much Japanese art permeates his less-is-more piano parts. Trained in both jazz and classical music, Bärtsch has evolved a gripping, groove-oriented sound that's partly composed, partly improvised yet smoothly cohesive. "We are interested in social and musical coherence with a maximum of individual and group freedom,â he says of his group. "We are interested 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."
While all Bärtsch's influences seem complex and esoteric, Ronin's spacious, mesmerizing "Zen-funk" actually sounds smooth and atmospheric in the best ECM tradition, with Reichian pulses floating over a sizzling, polyrhythmic groove primarily concocted by Rast, a childhood friend Bärtsch has been performing with for 30 years. It's often pretty, easily graspable, with obvious appeal to the Medeski, Martin & Wood/Bad Plus crowd, yet repays deeper, repeated exploration.
"I like it when you are seduced by the direct sensual surface of the music—often the groove and sound—but underneath is a subtle and complex structure that creates relaxed tension," Bärtsch says. "I am not interested in naive simplicity but in smart clearness."
As its broad audiences suggest, Ronin's seduction transcends category, genre or age. "Young audiences can feel if you are alive or already mummified by tradition," Bärtsch insists. "Of course, 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.â
SEE IT: Nik Bärtsch's Ronin plays the Alberta Rose Theatre on Friday, Feb. 25, with Blue Cranes. 8:30 pm. $27.50-$35. All ages (minors must be accompanied by a parent).