May 5, 2006

Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin drones on as Ralph Towner finds spiritual inspiration

Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin, Stoa, ECM

Stoa, the major label debut album of Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin, is a precise and pretentious attempt to unify minimalism, funk, jazz, and world music with a Zen aesthetic. Bärtsch, a Swiss pianist and composer, is a swirl of carefully studied influences, and his erudition is initially quite compelling. What would the musical offspring of minimalist innovator Steve Reich and soul godfather James Brown sound like? Bärtsch is willing to weigh in and remain true to both masters. Yet the novelty of Bärtsch’s scholarly acrobatics quickly wears thin. High-minded concepts are all well and good if they produce results compelling enough to stand on their own, but Bärtsch’s music is a slave to his rigorous conceptual framework—it’s experimental music that delivers too few surprises.

“Modul 35,” the album’s second track, starts off promisingly as a ticking electronic beat is suddenly joined by a pulsing groove that sounds like the best moments of The Bad Plus. The transition is startling, and the shifting sea of repeated piano riffs and tightly syncopated rhythms is a seductive invitation to dance. With a beginning like this, I expected to hear another 10 minutes of intoxicating rhythms and harmonies; what I got instead was a flat, self-conscious track that seemed to have been written to challenge common expectations of compositional arc and focus the listener’s attention on the beauty of repetition. Fair enough, but repetition, with its ability to heighten tension and illuminate new aspects of the repeated phrase, needs to lead somewhere eventually. Bärtsch’s music too often arrives at a ho-hum destination that doesn’t justify the demands of the journey.

Taken in small doses, Stoa elicits pleasures that range from the novel syntheses of musical traditions to the funky joys of an oft-repeated groove. Taken as a whole, however, Stoa stays so mired in the ingenuity of its hip pretensions that it never takes the next step—transforming its ideas into music that breathes and pulses with life. Bärtsch calls his music “Zen-funk,” but, at least to this unenlightened listener’s ears, instead of eliciting transcendence, Stoa constitutes an inscrutable koan of aggravation.

Ralph Towner, Time Line, ECM

Ralph Towner’s Time Line is as lyrical an album as you could hope to find. The music, 14 original tracks and 2 standards, shimmers with the melancholic lines of Towner’s solo guitar, but the production of the album itself may be even more romantic. Towner, an aging American expatriate living in Rome, recorded Time Line in the alpine air and rustic halls of St. Gerold, an Austrian mountain monastery. I don’t know of another album where the music and the events surrounding its production mesh so seamlessly.

Time Line is impressive not only for its total commitment to lyricism but also for the dexterity and restraint of Towner’s playing. From the first track onward, it is clear that Towner has major chops, playing contrapuntal melodies with precision and plumbing the depths of his instrument’s range. Yet Towner doesn’t deploy his virtuosity needlessly. There is never a moment on Time Line where it sounds like Towner is showing off—which is rare for a solo recording on any instrument.

Instead of going for easy thrills, Towner focuses on the quiet dynamics of touch and balance. His inspiration here is clear: the towering lyrical figure of pianist Bill Evans. The two standards that Towner plays—Harold Arlen’s “Come Rain or Come Shine” and George Gershwin’s “My Man’s Gone Now”—were favorites of Evans, and Towner explicitly acknowledges his debt to the pianist in the liner notes. Like Evans, Towner can draw both the joyful and mournful qualities out of a piece, and Towner writes his compositions with this bittersweet sensibility in mind.

Yet as an improviser, Towner is no match for the old master. A series of improvisatory sketches called “Five Glimpses” is by far the weakest entry on the album, meandering without structure or purpose. Towner’s improvisations on the other pieces are far better, but they still do not yield the surprises and inventiveness of great solos. These shortcomings may make Time Line fall short of Evans—which is hardly a criticism—but they do not mar the overall project. An artist who can so earnestly commit himself to lyrical and decidedly sap-free jazz is one to be admired.