Pianist Nik Bartsch has described Ronin’s music as “zen funk” — a categorization that, on the surface, seems oxymoronic. But at this perf, which marked the group’s Stateside bow, he went a long way toward bringing it into focus, albeit in a roundabout fashion.
Opening with a darkly incisive piece dominated by resolutely repeating rhythmic patterns, Bartsch and company set a decidedly cerebral mood reminiscent of the seminal chamber-jazz efforts Eberhard Weber issued on the ECM label, which also released “Stoa,” Ronin’s recorded debut.
The Swiss keyboardist’s compositions, dense and rife with labyrinthine paths, are a good deal less delicate than many of his precursors, and, with his robust playing of the contrabass clarinet, Stefan “Sha” Haslebacher burrowed through the pieces from the bottom up. The leader spent a great deal of time exploring his own instrument’s lower register, peppering his pieces — or “moduls,” as he prefers to call them — with occasional arpeggios but largely concentrating on contributing to the polyrhythmic palette.
As Bartsch turned to Japanese culture to name this ensemble, borrowing the term for a lone-wolf samurai warrior, it stands to reason that he’d also take a cue or two from the musical heritage of that country, where he recorded “Stoa.” While not the dominant tenor of the perf, notes of Japanese ritual music — the hypnotic percussive minimalism of the monastery — resounded through several of the extended pieces.
That meditative quality was certainly provocative, but the doggedness with which Bartsch eschewed spontaneity — virtually every measure, every melodic interaction, was exhaustively scripted — made it difficult to find a foothold at times. Aud members willing to surrender to the music’s ritualistic aspects, however, were likely to be ensnared as if getting caught in a giant spider web.