London Jazz Festival: Nik Bärtsch's Ronin

Simon Adams reviews Nik Bärtsch's Ronin at King's Place, London, 16 November 2011 and comes away dazzled rather than entertained

Nik Bartsch's RoninNik Bärtsch's Ronin have made a name for themselves with three fine ECM studio sets, but what makes them compelling on CD does not quite translate into a live setting. This is a band of thought and organisation. Their music is highly structured and precise, the complex interlocking rhythms and shifting textures requiring pinpoint accuracy and great concentration in delivery. Throughout their London Jazz Festival set, percussionist Andi Pupato followed drummer Kaspar Rast as if his life depended on it, tuning in to his intricate rhythms and adding his own percussive colouring. Pianist Bärtsch's single note motifs crosshatched against the insistent drums, setting up intriguing counterpoints emphasised by Björn Meyer’s mobile electric bass.

Heard on CD, this is music to marvel at, the hypnotic intensity of each piece all the more extraordinary for the question as to how it is put together. Seen live, that question is answered, and one can observe just how structured and precise everything is. No room here for any spontaneity or improvisation, for only Sha – an excellent bass clarinettist and alto saxophonist – appears to have any leeway. Indeed, the main requirements of all five musicians appears to be a phenomenal memory required to navigate the multiple interlocking sections of each piece and an ability to count and emphasise in odd and contradictory rhythms. Over the course of one long set, the band successfully delivered a fine performance that was much appreciated, but in their complexity they dazzled rather than entertained.

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