Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin Live is the pianist’s tenth album of bustling chamber fusion, which he labels Ritual Groove Music. A double CD, its nine pieces were selected from over 50 concerts recorded between 2009 and 2011 in eight cities in Europe and Japan.
it is both a document of a precision-honed live band and a farewell to one of its key members, bassist Björn Meyer. His replacement, Thomy Jordi, is introduced on the album’s final track, “Modul 55”, on which he ably mimics the low pitch accentuation Meyer achieved in a studio for Ronin’s last album, Llyria.
The satisfyingly chunky thunk of Meyer’s bass has been as central to Ronin’s sound as its collective rhythmic strut or Bartsch’s cyclic arpeggios. Witness, particularly, the lithe bass soloing around which “Modul 22” accretes.
Six of Live’s compositions are drawn from Ronin’s last two albums – three apiece from Llyria and its immediate forebear Holon. The other selections are “Modul 35” from STOA, “Modul 22” from REA, and “Modul 17”, the earliest piece here, first heard on an earlier Ronin Live album, Ritual Groove Music 4 (2003).
The album has been carefully sequenced: “Modul 41_17” opens with a bustling urgency that breaks into funky swagger on “Modul 35”, all slap bass and emphatic percussion from Andi Pupato and kit drummer Kaspar Rast.
“Modul 42” is a study in tonal subtlety, with Bartsch, piano close-miked to capture the actions of hammer and damper, producing prepared piano-like tones, and Sha’s clarinet sounding gently rounded, more like an oboe. Clarinet and piano interweave with urgent rhythm in a cascading “Modul 17”, Ronin imparting jazz energy to Reichian methodology. The Steve Reich influence is even more central to the electric Miles-meets-minimalism vamping on “Modul 22”.
A meaty bass intro to “Modul 45” kicks off disc two, and remains the backbone of this staccato fusion number. Modul 48 is contrastingly placid, preparing the listener for the intricacies of “Modul 47”, a slow-burning, intensely melodic composition delivered with constantly re-calibrated tension. “Modul 55” makes for a muted coda.
I’ve always found Ronin easier to admire than to love, but there’s a warmth to these recordings that gives them the edge over their studio counterparts. Whatever subtleties of studio-captured nuance are lost – a fraction of the brightness in the pianistic cascades and percussive snap to the studio version of “Modul 47”, say – are more than compensated for by the emphatic presence of Ronin Live.