He may call it "Zen Funk," but the real question is, what the hell is this? Swiss pianist and composer Nik Bartsch's Ronin have issued their ECM debut, Stoa, the label well-known for its icy sounding, spacious jazz. ECM has been pushing the envelope for nearly 40 years, but with Ronin, they've pushed it beyond the pale into God knows what. This is not a bad thing, however. Ronin was a group created with the idea of playing live. And over the course of three previous records issued only in Europe, the band -- birthed in 2001 when Bartsch was 30 -- plays a highly disciplined style of music that relies on interlocking rhythm, groove, and groups of tight, short melodic statements all stacked on top of one another. There are those who will immediately think of Steve Reich's minimalist discipline, but there are no equations to be solved here. It's math music to be sure, but its also got the good foot, the deep bass, and the drum ostinatos of James Brown & His Famous Flames or the JB's, or even the deep soul tight backbeat toughness of the best Stax rhythm sections. Bartsch has listened to everything from Reich and Terry Riley to techno and the Necks (there is a beautiful nod to them at the beginning of the opener "Modul 36"). Bartsch's melodic ideas are trance-like and hypnotic. They come across more as rhythmic statements than actual melodic ideas. There are Eastern aesthetics at work here in the stripped-down elementalism in this music. It's full of discipline and is depersonalized so that the ensemble comes off as one voice. It's clear Bartsch has spent time listening to some of the best experimental electronic music by artists such as Apparat, Thomas Brinkmann, Pole, Basic Channel, and Pan Sonic. And while there is improvisation in Ronin's attack, it's structured and tightly woven into Bartsch's compositional structures. What makes the band tick is the rhythm section as Bartsch works his modulated and shuffled lyrical fragments against the section, assisted ably and minimally by Sha on contrabass and bass clarinets (who acts as another part of the rhythm section more than as a soloist or melodist). It's bassist Bjorn Meyer, percussionist Andi Pupato, and especially the brilliant drummer Kaspar Rast making it all happen in real time. Bartsch plays a standard concert grand, but he also uses a Fender Rhodes. There is a sleek chrome and matte black, post-postmodernist, Euro-funky attack in sections of "Modul 33." It begins with a near dissonant ambience -- created by small percussion instruments and bell-like gongs -- that David Toop would cream over. But it's toward the center where the action is: Bartsch puts the overdrive in his left-hand work in the middle register in a series of modulations that start from the middle of a melody and work both forward and back, always returning to a center that is really the only constant. The popping hi hat and hushed snare usher in Sha, who shines here with his breath control and taut, stuttering, articulate blend of rhythm and harmonics that -- reminiscent of Roland Kirk in the '70s -- create a locking groove for Bartsch to play short, fleeting chords before beginning his knotty theme contrapuntally against the rhythm section. There is nothing extra in this music, no room for metaphor or metonymy or the self-expression jazz has at its center for soloists. Time signatures shift methodically, and the reined in groove becomes the entire proceeding. The piano and stick work of Rast create the loping, hard, trance airlock that is "Modul 38 _17," the set closer. Over 12 minutes in length, the listener is pulled into one sphere or the other, that of the piano or the percussion, though both come to the same middle to reach outward. What sounds like a loop is actually played live without overdubbing or editing. Bartsch plays both Rhodes and acoustic piano, one in each hand, covering the ground as Sha, Meyer, and Pupato create their own series of continuous hypno-grooves. Bartsch shifts the melodic idea or stacks and cuts it as the piece evolves, becoming ever more pronounced and forceful, leaving the listener exhausted by its end. While it is an utter pleasure to listen to these five long pieces -- nothing is less than nine minutes here, which shows just how this music is played live and to experience the taut control and the tenacity it takes to play this music in a concert setting. Stoa may not be jazz, or "Zen Funk," it may not be anything at all, and yet, that is what makes Ronin's Stoa such a powerful and illuminating experience. It's one of those recordings that can be enjoyed by more open-minded jazz fans, but the true audience for Stoa lies in fans of the Necks (nothing quite so blissful here though, folks) and experimental techno fans if they can get past the notion that all this music is made live. ECM has raised the bar once more by recording and releasing a truly compelling, curious, maddening, and provocative Edition of Creative Musicians with Stoa. Ronin is a band of the future, one that has nowhere to go but out into the sonic stratosphere. Judging by this set, it will be exciting to witness where they go from here.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek