[As our friend Dan Schwartz continues to recover, we’ll revisit one of his columns on minimalist music. FWIW, I didn’t care for this stuff at first—and now often play Bärtsch while I’m writing. —Ed.]
I first heard of composer Nik Bärtsch from director Robert Harmon around the time of Bärtsch’s earliest ECM releases. A little while after that, my friend Pete Devine started raving about him and his group. I thought I should pay attention.
It isn’t exactly minimalist music — but it’s not anything else either. Bärtsch has used the terms “ritual groove” and “zen funk”, which are kind of groovy as terms but don’t really say anything about what it sounds like. Those are more a way into how he thinks about what he’s doing than anything else. They don’t say much, but knowing the music, I get it. And I very much dig the groove.
As a keyboardist, Bärtsch maintains the center position in the music, but his parts are often very simple — not necessarily easy to play, but not necessarily hard either. The other instruments embellish, weave around, ultimately painting a big picture. And on first listen, you might think you’ve heard music like this before — but if you have, it’s this music that you’ve heard (several videos of which are accessible on Bärtsch’s You Tube channel).
All of the pieces are titled Modul Some-number-or-other. It’s a handy conceit, and saves the trouble of having to come up with a title (maybe I should call these articles by that name). What connects Bärtsch’s music to the other minimalists I’ve written about is that the music is built around (generally) short repeated figures and motifs. Whether on piano, a woodwind, bass or drums, it’s the assemblage of how the layers interact that makes it work.
Various write-ups compare the music to James Brown, which is about as un-apt a comparison as you can make. All of Brown’s drummers were seriously funky. This is as white as it gets — it’s very Swiss; it’s more of a fusion player’s idea of funk. A better comparison would be to a Swiss clockwork. BUT: there is something akin to Brown in the music, too. You listen to the JBs “Doing It To Death”, where the band hits a solid groove and just hammers it with little variations, and you see how the comparison gets made. Similar, but also the antithesis. And though the overall texture is complex like Brown’s, it’s made up of a tapestry of simple parts (like much of African music, for that matter).
And though I’ve said it’s anything but like James Brown, that doesn’t mean I don’t think the world of this music. If you’ve heard the band Can, and their recently-deceased, unbelievably-spectacular drummer Jaki Liebezeit , you have an idea of the tenor of these tunes. Liebezeit’s drumming was highly angular — a similar thing goes on here.
You won’t hear much you’ll recognize as soloing, in a jazz, blues, or rock sense. But the music has textures and instruments that come out from the fabric of the rhythms — it may even be improvised in places. And this music doesn’t exactly swing in the classic sense, but if you’ve read this far, it’s got the classic ECM sound.
I know it seems like I’m damning Bärtsch with faint praise — I’m actually trying to indicate that this is something pretty utterly unique, but using familiar instrumentation and techniques. For piano jazz, I go to Keith Jarrett, but for this, there’s only one place to go : right here.