LIVE: Nik Bärtsch’s Mobile @ EMPAC at RPI, 5/5/16

Review by Greg Haymes

Tired of the same-old, same-old two guitars-bass-and-drums line-up? Well, as Monty Python used to say, “And now for something completely different…”

How about some Swiss zen meditations? Zurich-based pianist Nik Bärtsch brought his acoustic quartet Mobile to EMPAC at RPI in Troy on Thursday for a thoroughly adventurous, progressive evening of music that fused together elements of jazz, funk, post-modern classical music and more. Bärtsch calls it “ritual groove music,” and boiled down to mission statement or a genre shorthand, I guess that’s as good a description as any.

In the dark with no introduction, the band walked out onto EMPAC’s Concert Hall stage, and Bärtsch immediately launched into a repetitive figure on the grand piano. Soon the rest of the band – drummer Kaspar Rast, percussionist Nicholas Stocker and bass clarinetist Sha – joined in, and for an uninterrupted 70 minutes they didn’t stop playing – only shape-shifting the grooves and the repetitive riffing from one incessantly intoxicating song to another. I say 70 minutes because that’s what I determined when I checked my watch at the end of their performance. In truth, time seemed to simply disappear down some sonic rabbit hole, folding into itself somewhere around the second or third song.

Actually, they’re not really even songs. Bärtsch prefers the term “module,” and from the opening “Module 29_14,” the pieces fit together like some strange interlocking musical set of Legos. Not a jigsaw puzzle; this was definitely three-dimensional music. The lead riff pattern – as well as the organic band energy – passed from piano to bass clarinet to glockenspiel and back again, altered slightly along the way like some variation on the polyrhythmic chamber music of Steve Reich or Philip Glass. Sometimes it sounded like church. At other times, it could have been a dance party.

And when Sha reached for his enormous contrabass clarinet or Bärtsch started banging around the inside of the piano, the sound grew deeper and darker. Yet it was uplifting and always intense. It wasn’t just cinematic; it was wide-screen Cinerama – at once synchronized and syncopated, hot-wired and haunting, propulsive and pensive. The music was drawn (primarily? exclusively?) from their brand-spankin’ new album Continuum on the always forward-thinking ECM label. (On the album, they are sometimes augmented by a string quintet.)

Mood and atmosphere were integral elements of the performance, and kudos go out to lighting designer Daniel Eaton, who deftly enhanced the concert experience with deceptively simple approach that highlighted the four black-clad bandmembers with individual footlights, but brought them together at various points in the evening with subtly shifting back-lighting.

Bärtsch rarely crosses the Atlantic these days, and the performance at EMPAC was one of only three public concerts on the current U.S. tour, which wraps up tonight (Friday, May 6) with a sold-out concert at NYC’s Rubin Museum. If you caught them at EMPAC on Thursday, consider yourself lucky. Very lucky, indeed…

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