Nik Bärtsch Delivers Meditative Solo Piano Concert at Bergamo Jazz Fest


“For me, the jazz tradition has worked most consciously and seriously with the idea of freedom in music,” Bärtsch said.

(Photo: Christian Senti)

Even before COVID-19 made it problematic for his popular Ronin and Mobile ensembles to tour, Nik Bärtsch and his ECM producer, Manfred Eicher, thought of making a solo piano album, which Bärtsch hadn’t done since Hishiryo, from 2002.

“I didn’t want to compete with my bands,” Bärtsch explained a few hours after a meditative late-morning solo concert at the Bergamo Jazz Festival, where he’d medleyed repertoire from Entendre (2021) with deep focus, relaxed precision and polyrhythmic derring-do. “With the lockdown, I decided a solo recording made sense for everybody.”

Bärtsch described the respective functions of his units, documented on six prior ECM albums, most recently Awase (Ronin) and Continuum (Mobile), disseminating his kinetic, trance-like, sui generis works — developed over 20 years of Monday nights at EXIL, his Zurich club — to an ever-growing international fan base. “Ronin is amplified — more clubs and festivals; Mobile is acoustic — chamber music, ritual settings, also performances,” he said. “I try to support the band and make everyone sound good. But I always played solo, developed ideas, and brought them back. It was clearly time to show how I can interpret the multilayered music I composed and we developed together. In the piano playing you hear every detail, every sound. I also wanted to create reference recordings for pieces other people have been playing, which are not so easy rhythmically and sonically.

“Playing solo, I wear several hats — composer and interpreter, but also improviser. I choose pieces that might work for the setting, but where they lead me, how I combine them and what I play in the transitions is completely open. In a way, the material develops itself. I try to incorporate traditions from classical music, playing with broad dynamics and a huge feeling for sound and texture, and from jazz, developing my inner drummer to render the groove and rhythmic play I do in the bands.”

During the Bergamo concert, it was fascinating to watch Bärtsch address the resonant 1932 house Steinway. He executed contrapuntal, interlocking vamps with nuanced touch, punctuating with well-calibrated gestures that expanded the piano’s tonal palette. He hammered a single note to create harmonics and percussive effects and evoked the flavor of a brass section with fortissimo attack in the higher register. He prepared the strings with thin erasers; manipulated the strings with his hands to elicit “different percussive and bass sounds,” or softly caressed them for “a wind sound or deeper, waterish voices.”

“The piano is a concert instrument for the Western music tradition, but I’ve always been connected to other traditions,” Bärtsch said, noting frequent extended sojourns to Japan to study Gagaku or Noh ritual. “In 2017, I toured Cairo, Alexandria, Tehran, Calcutta and Delhi, which have — especially Persian and Indian music — ritualistic or spiritual contexts for musical settings. I saw that my music touched people who appreciated its closeness — not aesthetically, but the attitude — to these rhythmically strong traditions and to how they train and play. That also encouraged me to focus on solo playing.”

“Not aesthetically but the attitude” describes how Bärtsch contextualizes his sui generis music to American hardcore jazz. “It’s a contemporary music very much inspired by jazz,” he said, before describing bedrock influences: “drumming as a kid, boogie-woogie, playing blues standards, a lot of Latin music. Gershwin, then going to Bartók, Stravinsky, classical music over these rhythmic conceptions.” At home, his parents, nonconformist arts professionals who took 8-year-old Bärtsch on a long musical field trip to Ceauşescu’s Romania in 1979, offered a global soundtrack. A good “style faker” by the end of his teens, Bärtsch said he listened to “stride pianists, Chick Corea, George Duke, Lennie Tristano; I read a lot about jazz and went to many concerts.” As he started to study classical piano and new music, he began to focus on developing in his own way.

“For me, the jazz tradition has worked most consciously and seriously with the idea of freedom in music,” Bärtsch said. “What can you do with material? How can you develop a way of improvising with all music — not just your own folk tradition — in terms of phrasing, time, groove, interplay, and working together with ghost notes? I’m inspired by the orchestral thinking of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, who played for the band, for song, sometimes just coloring something, playing a shadow or a certain blending. The structure is very complex, but it’s presented so directly; I love the direct impact, the direct sensuality. That’s what I need, too: a sophisticated way to treat your history, your skills, so it speaks directly to many people, but on a level where you can dive deeply into the music. Minimalism does not mean just simplifying.”

Bärtsch had to catch a flight to London for a concert next evening with Ronin, before returning to Zurich for yet another Monday evening at EXIL. Is a musician’s life analogous to the ronin archetype? “That’s true,” Bärtsch replied. “First, the ronin is a freelancer. In the Japanese tradition, ronins were robbers and strange half-shadow figures, but also the best warriors and free spirits.”

Does he see Swiss identity reflected in his musical production? “Switzerland is in the middle of Europe, not part of the European Union, but everyone travels through,” Bärtsch said. “It’s a very open-minded country, especially towards the arts in the cities, so you can explore what you want, although questions of your roots, your role models, your own tradition are difficult. This democratic spirit is important for me. But reliability and precision is also important. For example, there’s a cliché that Switzerland makes good chocolate that’s exactly this — we don’t have those substances indigenously, but we make the best result out of it. It’s similar in our music. Maybe all these traditions are founded or developed somewhere else, but in our music they all coalesce — and we do a wonderful refinement.” DB

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