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Nik Bärtsch's Ronin Holon &
The Necks Townsville

Review By Clarke Robinson
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  If there is, in fact, nothing new under the sun, then the only forms of music left to discover will come from previously unimagined combinations of existing genres. Minimalist music, with its often rigorous, metronomic qualities, hardly seems a comfy bedfellow of jazz, a music that celebrates freedom and individuality through improvisation. In the hands of the subjects of this review, Switzerland's Nik Bärtsch and The Necks from Australia, something new has indeed been created though their combination. Each has released a new recording recently and I have had opportunities to enjoy them both.

 

 

Nik Bärtsch's Ronin Holon

Nik Bärtsch has been making records with his ensemble Ronin since 2002 (his earliest recording, 2001's Ritual Groove Music, is of his other group, Mobile ). Ronin's first four albums, released on Bärtsch's own Ronin Rhythm Records label, didn't garner much attention outside of Europe, but that changed dramatically in 2006 with the release of Stoa on ECM. It seemed like you couldn't turn around last year without finding another glowing review of Stoa in the audio/jazz/progressive music press, and it was easy to hear why. Bärtsch's "zen funk" (as he calls it) brings a fresh, hard-grooving sound to the arty, highbrow ideals of contemporary classical music. If you can imagine Steve Reich putting together a jazz band for a gig at the Apollo Theater, you can begin to imagine Ronin's sound.

Bärtsch's overall approach with Roninhasn't changed on Holon, but here the compelling "zen funk" moments occur more frequently, and the band seems to arrive at them more organically. They have been playing a regular Monday night gig at the Bazillus Club in Zürich every week for the past few years, and the fruits of this activity are evident on the new album.

This music is jazz in instrumentation more than anything else, Bärtsch's pieces are meticulously composed. There are solos and, I presume, improvisations, but the band performs with such fluidity it's not always easy to tell where they begin or end. There is something of a pop sensibility to Holon (I don't mean that in a bad way): repetitive sections always evolve short of producing the "Chinese water torture effect" that occurs in some minimalist music, and tracks are shorter than in the previous record (only one piece clocks in over ten minutes). Having said that, Bärtsch's compositions are delightfully complex... I couldn't tell you what time signatures are being juxtaposed in "Modul 45", but it's not the kind of thing you hear on your typical Clear Channel property.

Besides Holon's infectious "zen funkiness", the most compelling aspects of this music are the moods it evokes. "Modul 46" opens with what feels like a Sunday afternoon in the park, then builds to a climax with an energy level somewhere between a car chase and a chill-out electronica lounge, yet brings both to mind. Most of the pieces end somewhat suddenly after a denouement, but they do so in a way similar to European films... not leaving you hanging, but with thought provoked and the specifics left to interpretation. Indeed, Bärtsch would make an outstanding film composer, kudos to the first director that recognizes this and gives him a gig.

ECM recordings are well known for their exquisite sonics, and Holon is a standout among them. Recommended.

 

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The Necks Townsville

In today's attention deficient culture, it is encouraging that The Necks have grown as popular as they have (according to their website, "their thirteen albums have sold in their thousands [sic]"). They have made music in much the same way ever since their first recording (Sex, on their own label, Fish of Milk) was released in 1989: with a few exceptions, each of their albums consists of a single track around one hour in length. Each performance begins with a simple theme which is repeated and subtly (almost imperceptibly) evolved and ornamented, often growing in energy, tempo, and volume until the music reaches a fever pitch. On certain studio dates they have experimented with adding guest musicians, electronic instruments, or overdubs, but their live recordings (which Townsville is) have always used the traditional jazz piano trio format.

Although influences are similar, The Necks' music is the polar opposite of NikBärtsch's: nothing in a Necks performance is composed, nor even discussed before the band hits the stage. What is most amazing about The Necks music is that, even though their modus operandi is virtually identical every time they play, each performance sounds completely different. Their 2002 release Athenaeum, Homebush, Quay & Raab, a 4-CD box set with one live performance per disc, is a rich testament to the amount of variety possible with this deceptively simple approach.

Townsville continues in the vein of their live albums (1998's Piano Bass Drums, 2003's Photosynthetic, and the aforementioned AHQR), however while each of these display varying amounts of bombast, Townsville maintains a more ambient vibe, not unlike their 2001 studio outing, Aether (although sounding very different). However, make no mistake: although the toe-tapping grooves heard in earlier albums are eschewed this time around, Townsville gets very intense at times and is a recording that rewards being played loud.

Over the band's 20-year history, pianist Chris Abrahams has developed a formidable technique for playing this kind of music. In previous outings he has imitated the sound of electronic delay effects (without the use of actual delay effects), and while he doesn't recreate that exact device here, the muscle memory and dynamic precision it requires are in full effect. He creates a series of chromatic flourishes that become the dominant voice of Townsville, reiterating them with remarkable accuracy and shaping the mood of the piece by manipulating their tempo and complexity. Although Abrahams has the strongest role in the outcome of this performance, bassist Lloyd Swanton sets the mood at the outset with a low, throbbing intro. The performance is somewhat precious in its early stages, but Swanton's edgy growls prevent the band from sinking into Muzaky mire. Drummer Tony Buck does no time keeping on Townsville, but adds a brassy sheen to the proceedings by playing cymbals almost exclusively, demonstrating an extraordinary stamina and sensitive listening ability.

Piano, Bass, Drums rocks out harder, and as such it might be a better starting place if you've never heard the band, unless you are a fan of ambient music. For the initiated, however, Townsville is an excellent addition to The Necks catalog, a unique example of the sonic diversity they are capable of.

 

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