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Nik Bartsch - Entendre (ECM)

19 March 2021

After eight albums with his so-called “Zen funk” band Ronin and three with his more expansive group Mobile, Swiss pianist Nik Bartsch returns to the solo format for the first time since 2002 on Entendre. Minus a rhythm section or a second voice to play off of, Bartsch continues his exploration of what he’s referred to as “ritual groove music” – an evocative mix of repetition, minimalism and, yes, groove that’s distinctly his own. But minus the structure of a band, he’s also able to move beyond the self-imposed borders of his “moduls” and find new degrees of expression.

“Modul 58-12,” a combination of tracks formerly recorded by Ronin and Mobile, begins as one might expect from this artist, with a roiling left hand rhythm and a one-note riff on the right. Just as the piece builds up steam, however, the rigidness falls away, with both hands wandering into free expression of a type not usually found on Bartsch’s other records. “Modul 55” continues the trend, interrupting a more majestic minimalist melody with tinkling, koto-like flourishes and sudden strums of the piano strings. Bartsch dances from near-cacophony to sudden silences to fleet-fingered drive on “Modul 5,” like a concert pianist forgetting his audience and just exploring the keyboard. Possibly the most classical-sounding track, “Modul 13” strips the arrangement way back to a couple of space-shifting, spartan riffs that engage the ear while leaving plenty of white space for imaginary fills. The sparse “Déjà-vu, Vienna,” almost more a sketch than a song, brings the record quietly to a close.

This is Bartsch’s version of a solo piano recital, offering melodic appeal only within its own self-contained rules, with even the most shimmeringly lovely passages fielding an undercurrent of tension. Carefully balancing accessibility with unpredictability, there’s nothing else quite like Entendre.