Thursday, 11 March 2010

Nik Bärtsch and Ronin @ The Sage...

We took advantage of an unexpectedly mild and still evening to walk across the water for some pre-concert food (using a foot bridge, not some small miracle). The brightly coloured reflections of solid blocks of light on the Tyne actually reminded me of Bärtsch's light show, and I was eager then to get inside and hear some music.

There was a slight sense of deja vu about this gig. It was barely 12 months since this exciting Swiss group last appeared on Tyneside and they're still pretty much playing the same set, which draws largely from their recent ECM release Holon. Last time they played in Hall Two on a double bill with Marcin Wasilewski, but this time they were in the more intimate Northern Rock Foundation Hall. Although not sharing the stage with Wasilewski's last night, Ros Rigby's pre-concert announcement included the well received news that those supremely talented Poles will in fact be returning to The Sage on June 9th. I like a good bit of symmetry, don't you?

I didn't expect a radical change of direction from Bärtsch, and I wasn't disappointed. There's a lot to admire in the somewhat predictable nature of Bärtsch's music, even without the proverbial 'sound of surprise'. Yes, the gig which followed was very similar to another performance still fresh in recent memory, but given the nature of Bärtsch's music I'd actually be concerned if that wasn't so. Repetition and slow evolutions that are subtle and often difficult to detect are the defining elements of this music. Many would struggle with the notion that complexity and precision should be placed on a higher pedestal than spontaneity and self expression, the eternal verities of jazz, the truly democratic music. What would the jazz police think of Bartsch? Few, if any, were in the highly appreciative audience so the question fortunately never arose.

Slowly evolving (but logically interconnected) cells are threaded through Pupato and Rast's machine-like percussion, and the bewildering complexity of the group's polyrhythms would surely need some pretty advanced music analysis software to crack the exact time signatures. The group were certainly tighter and more 'road tested' than last time, and although still very much a collaborative affair with only modest scope for individualism, I sensed a slight loosening of the reins. Björn Meyer very nearly emerged as principal soloist, his bass singing in a way that only Jaco Pastorius and a handful of disciples have ever been able to accomplish. Meyer's grin broke rank with the group's more cerebral front, the bassist pretty much assuming the role of heart of the machine.

It was gratifying to se such a good turn-out, and the Sage's smallest performance space is actually one of their best if it's an intimate club-like experience that you're after. Jazz North East are presenting Liam Noble's trio performing the music of Dave Brubeck as I sit here tonight typing these words. In many ways there's a cute symmetry there too. Brubeck built his reputation on unorthodox time signatures, and Bärtsch has pushed the limits of what is possible with a regular jazz rhythm-section to almost ludicrous extremes. Building on both the lessons of elegant minimalism and the fusion of jazz with the visceral pleasures of 'plugged in' post-rock, Bärtsch is combining choice elements of style from a diverse range of sources with the same level of craftsmanship as John Zorn.

Although there's a way to go before Bärtsch exploits his music's full potential - a few melodic hooks to soften the severity of the experience wouldn't hurt - he's nevertheless carving out a thoroughly individual niche. I'm sure that Noble is doing his best to deconstruct the past this evening, but after a night spent listening to music that boldly faces the future, I couldn't be tempted to join them. I worry that large swathes of the jazz public often appear to be several decades behind the times. Many still consider 'free jazz' (a 50 year old art form) to be something new, challenging or dangerous. The truth is that jazz's cutting edge is a far quieter place and it lies elsewhere. Ronin are situated at almost the diametric oposite of free jazz and improvised music, yet there is as much passion and soul put into their comparatively small gestures - watching this material in live performance only affirms that. Fans of both Brubeck and 'Fire Music' would probably have hated Bärtsch. We left happy.

Fred Grand

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