Nik Bartsch & Ronin Rhythm Clan – Kings Place, London


Nik Bartsch

Opening Night of the London Jazz Festival brought us Nik Bartsch's Rhythm Clan, an expanded version of the Swiss pianist/composer's long-standing Ronin group, adding electric guitar and horn section to the ascetic mix. Dressed down in black, the band exudes a masculine, vaguely menacing air as it gathers under purple stage-lighting – though when Bartsch speaks, he's warm and welcoming, inviting us to come and see the band any Monday in Zurich. Bartsch himself wears black kimono – there's definitely drama at work here, though as the music unfolds the attire seems less for our benefit, more a way of honing in on a place of heightened discipline and awareness. From the first note, it's clear this is a band rigorous in every way. Incredible precision marks entries and time-shifts. The mostly modular compositions bring razor-sharp transformations: new sections arrive already locked into the groove, timepiece drumming wonderfully crisp against chords warmed with the colours of flute and flugelhorn. Bass clarinet features strongly, sometimes snapping like percussion, and there's an extended sound-palette at the keyboard, with prepared piano – Bartsch occasionally striking the instrument with drumsticks for a sound like the crack of Japanese temple blocks – and the judicious use of Rhodes. Soloing isn't a priority – groove, dynamics and collective focus give the music its intensity and sense of purpose. Often the only way to stop the relentless drive is with a sharp cut – dead-stop and blackout come together several times with dramatic effect. Billed as part of the Minimalism Unwrapped series as well as the Jazz Festival, the cumulative power of repetition and rhythmic shift did bring to mind the world of Reich, as well as that of Bartsch's compatriot Le Corbusier and his concept of the house as a 'machine for living in' – maybe this is music as a machine for human experience.

– Philip Hogg