Jazz is very important tradition for our music - an interview with Nik Bartsch

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mat. promocyjne

Przemysław Chmiel: Nik we are meeting today because of your concert at Warsaw Summer Jazz Days. It is a jazz festival so I want to ask you: do you consider yourself a jazz musician?

Nik Bartsch: Yeah, I think jazz is very important tradition for our music because it’s lot about how – as a band and a player treat material with freedom. And certain way of interaction and playing together is in the jazz spirit. Also maybe the idea of creating a composition that a band can work with is very close to a jazz attitude. But on the other hand I’m a composer in almost a classical sense, like I really write even the drum beats and everything. I always was looking for a position in between, like a third way, because in a classical music you have very strict interpretation, in jazz you treat the material very freely. So I wanted to have attitude that respects the composition as really composed material, the whole coherent piece. But on the other hand when creative players in a band can play together can treat this more freely and even every evening a bit different. That’s my modular way, so I’m very influenced by the jazz tradition – great players and composers (there is the way of touching the piano or the phrasing), but on the other way this is just one influence. Classical composed music, world music, funk music, spiritual music are other influences.

P. Ch.: I have listened to almost all of your albums and what was very interesting for me is that – in opposition to most of the regular jazz bands – you don’t really focus on long piano solos, playing jazz lines etc. I would like to know that, if improvisation is important for you when you create music?

N. B.: It is very important, but not so much in a sense of developing yourself, the solo, over something, but more with something. Of course I’m playing solo, but also there I try to develop something in the composition, so that when you listen, you don’t know anymore is this composed, or is it invented in a moment. So it doesn’t sound like a solo, but there is a lot of invention in it. And when we play with the band, we try to always do that together. So there are several possibilities of improvising in that sense. For example developing ghost notes, little ideas that goes through the piece, not by showing a solo, but by creating together a new way of interpreting the piece. Or we have one or two players have more possibilities, but they act as an animal that is hiding in the woods. When it moves you see it, but suddenly this is part of the picture. We also have certain pieces where this modular way of playing allows you to improvise with certain elements. From outside you don’t hear that actually most of the parts are improvised, but they are improvised with that material. So the band somehow organises the composition. This way of interacting and do that as a whole organism – that’s our way of improvising. Off course, from time to time, you have some lines and some structures, but also sometimes we play more into that spiritual tradition, that solo is more giving different lights to composition or play a bit, some lines, and then waits that you hear the rest in connection to what he played. So it’s a bit different attitude. This is not good or bad, but when you have a clear solo, than your ear goes to the solo, and you forget the rest. That’s why we try to do it more together.

P.Ch.: I had that feeling, that when you’re soloing it’s more about being into the groove, or creating more layers in the groove, than it is typical solo, a bit like showing yourself.

N.B. Exactly. It’s a lot about balance and equilibrium and finding the right balance in the moment.

P.Ch.: Okay. So could you tell me – if it’s not a secret – how much of your music is improvised, and how much is composed.

N. B.: Usually I’m composing everything. The piece works as a composed structure. So you can play – of course you need to play it good in terms of playing instruments and playing together and phrasing etcetera – but then it’s all written: the drum beat, the bass line, the piano line, the developments. But we play so long and so intense, we first rehearse it, than we play it in my club every week, every Monday, for maybe half a year, than we play it on tour, and then we play it over years – and in between record it – so the players know the piece so well, that in every performance we find new things. Simple example is: you have a pattern, a little musical figure, and in one performance you play it over each other – shifted – and maybe the first three years it was not possible, because you didn’t hear it. But then you hear it and suddenly new movements start to develop and from outside, from the audience, you don’t know that, it sounds like composed. But it is just based on the composition, and then it’s been  developed. Every player can do that, if he knows the material very well. Then you’re able to improvise with the material in a coherent sense. And we know that from all of the great players. In a classical tradition: Bach, Chopin, Mozart were all able to improvise with their pieces.


P.Ch.: So the band is treating the material differently because of their knowledge about it. Could you tell me how do you work on a material with the band? If you come with a new composition what happens then?

N. B.: I create composition, so you have a sheet, a score, but you also have playing version. I record it, that you can hear the 

example of composition. My colleagues can check it out, play it, and then we rehearse it very intensely, and then it goes to our weekly concerts. We play every Monday in my club and we practise the pieces, we check how they work. If there is any problem, how is their energy. Some pieces are very complex, so you have to know how do you move through that piece. Then after awhile we have some understanding of the piece, than we go on tour with those pieces and we record it. So before recording it there is a process of two or three years very often and we know the material very well at that point. Than everything can happen. Some pieces develop after ten years into different direction, but you can still recognise the basic idea. My ambition as a composer is that every composition has one basic idea, and then composition lives from that. Over time it can change, because when we play it so much we learn a lot about them. Even for me as a composer. At the beginning I don’t know all of the possibilities. So that’s the way we work.

P.Ch.: We are talking about your band Ronin and you’ve been working with them for almost twenty years. I wonder if it’s easy to still surprise each other, inspire each other, or to still be intrigued, after all these years?

N.B.: We had few changes on the bass, but with Kaspar, the drummer, I’ve been playing since we were kids. I was ten, and he was nine when we met. Also Sha, the reed player, has been with us for almost twenty years. That’s exactly the interesting point. Through that development, through that spirit of really going into details, and also to learning more about that music, we come to a lot of surprising moments, that are happening more out of the organism. Not so much because of my instructions, but mainly because of surprise out of playing together. So things are happening, not because of plans of yourself, but because of togetherness. In martial arts you also call that awase, in Japanese it means ,,melting”. When a movement comes and somebody is really together, things are happening, that you didn’t expect. The balance goes one time in this direction, one time in that direction. One of the big beautiful things in our work is exactly that through this long work those surprising things are happening. Our problem is not that we get tired of these pieces. The challenge is more to find enough time to constantly work on that. One thing is practising and playing a lot of known pieces, but the other is to constantly do rehearsals, really working. You never know if this stops and somebody is not able anyone to develop, including me – than we have to change something.

P. Ch.: Do you have many opportunities to play with other musicians from outside Ronin or Mobile?

N.B.: There are lot of opportunities, but it’s a question of decision. I play some special project with other musicians and artists, but I’m very careful, because time is limited. It’s not that I’m not interested, I love many players, I would like to  collaborate with them, but also there you have to have time to study their stuff. Very often is just a question of decision and staying modest on what you can develop, because you cannot do everything. Even if you’d like to. As an creative artist usually problem is that you have too many opportunities and you have to be careful with your choices, just because of your energy and capacity to learn and develop.

P. Ch.:  I’ve read in your biography that you’ve studied at Zurich University: literature and philosophy. I wanted to ask you do feel that those studies somehow affected you as a musician?

N. B.: Yeah, very much. I actually started to study, because I was interested in aesthetics, art, philosophy. But then I learned that this is hardly theoretical and I was more than attracted by language philosophy and communication philosophy, because in music we have a lot to do with that. So one side is talking and writing about music, what can we do with that, what can we say about music as a non-verbal phenomenon? And the other thing is communication itself with science, like what we actually do. So when we play it must be clear what language we speak, or even what dialect. When we do that consciously than we can be in this very free and developing a lot. That’s something that, I think, helps when you study language philosophy and interaction philosophy in a communication of humans, also with animals, but it’s a different topic, and that has a social, aesthetical and ethical aspect of how we work together.

P.Ch.: Do you think it is important for a musician to be interested not only in music?

N. B.: That depends probably a bit when you’re in music very much, you also come out of music through learning a lot about composers and players and stuff. But for me very much, yes. I actually wrote a book about that, I can give you the book after the interview. It is about influences from outside that help a lot to develop the music and the musical attitude.

P. Ch.: Today you’re gonna play with your Ronin band, but I’m also interested in your latest CD. It was a solo album and, if I’m right, it is coming back to solo album after almost twenty years. So would like to know why have you decided to record solo album right now?

N.B.: You know I wanted to show these three major projects: Mobile - the acoustic spiritual group, Ronin – the amplified, more freer, funkier group, and my solo project that is more inside. It’s more about the dialogue with the piano – piano as kind of an orchestral instrument. I invested a lot in the bands. Over time I wanted also to give the bands enough time and space. Ronin was playing a lot and had a good success in terms of response from the world, so I wanted to carefully work on that. But since four or five years I was talking about solo album – also with a producer Manfred Eicher. Than I had a solo tour, that I haven’t planned – people wanted to hear the solo project. Also I had a project in the middle East with a visual artist, so there my solo presence developed automatically. Than the time was suddenly right, when I felt that when I go to the studio with a producer, something might happen that I don’t know yet. It was important for me that time was right, that I didn’t have to push it or deliver just anything. It is funny that after twenty years after first solo album, the whole experience, the whole spirit is the same. Maybe now I was more relaxed and I had more trust, that the music will create something. Like I said before: I know my music so well, that I find it the most interesting to show other people the new view on the material.

P. Ch.: Some of the musicians that I talked to say, that recording a solo album is one of the biggest challenges for a musician and it is maybe just the most difficult one. Would you agree with this sentence?

N.B.: It is a great challenge, but in my case it is not really the solo album, it is a team work, effect of my experience with the band. I’m hearing my band a lot, when I play solo. Also I wasn’t alone, there was also the producer, so it was six ears listening to what’s happening. My goal was that the music inspires all of us to drift to another place, than I knew before, when I came to the studio. And that is what actually happened – as a team work. But on the other hand you’re right. You’re alone with that instrument. And also the history of classical solo playing and jazz solo playing is huge, so you have to be clear what your own voice is in all of this. That’s why I’ve waited so long. I didn’t want to make just another solo record. I wanted listener to hear, that this album is a comment on my whole musical idea and vision. So the people can finally hear the piano alone, because when I play with the band, I very often take myself back, just play as an orchestral shadow – like Count Basie and Duke Ellington did sometimes – only colours and stuff like that. Maybe people didn’t even notice, that there is a piano player. And finally the time was right – not to prove anything, but just to show how the piano alone sounds.

P.Ch.: You have mentioned Manfred Eicher, he’s of course an important figure in your discography, because he’s a king of ECM label. I’ve heard so many legends about his influence on musicians or recording session itself. Do you have any thoughts on that? Is he important figure during your recording sessions?

N.B.: Yes, absolutely. First of all he’s a really careful listener. He creates the atmosphere by listening. The atmosphere, that helps a lot. It always helped me to focus, because I knew that someone is seriously listening. The second thing is that he’s got very good feeling of music. Not always the most correct take will be the best one. He has a good feeling if there is a need for another take or not. On my solo record we have three first takes and the other ones are second takes. With some pieces he said ,,try this a little bit slower” or something. When we work we never do lots of takes. Usually one or two, very rarely there is a third take. He is a radar if the piece has the right shape. Sometimes he knows exactly what he has to tell you. He had a great impact on many recordings, not in a sense that he changes anything, but he can subtly give the whole thing a spin, that it becomes very surprising.

P.Ch.: Okay. So after listening to recorded material, when you go through different takes, do you find Manfred’s advices to be correct? For example if he said in studio that second take of some tune is better than first because it is a little bit slower, can you hear this difference afterwards and do you agree with it?

N.B.: Yeah, absolutely. We are also lucky, because we rarely have very different opinions. I’m also not there to fight with the producers view or ear. I’m actually thankful for them. I focus on be in contact with the music and I have this feedback. Sometime I work as a producer – with some younger bands. In those situations I try not to think as a musician, but as a producer. So I don’t know anything about what you’ve practised, I don’t know anything about what do you want from your music, I’m only listening the music itself. The take is the truth. Not what you can explain, or the score or whatever. What comes from the band as a music is the most important thing. I found this producer’s role very inspiring and I respect it very much. For me it is not about arguing, about who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s all about this ear and view of the producer and from this perspective me and Manfred we never had fights. It’s not the case of what take is better, but it is more about what happened in the music, and what he heard, and what I heard.

P.Ch.: Okay, so you are like a team, with the same goal. If you’ve got a choice with your next CDs, would you prefer to work with a producer or without him?

N.B.: With a producer, for sure. He is a very inspiring role, like in the theatre. In music it is not that common, although we know how important producers are in pop music. But in a theatre there is a director, but there is also a guy responsible for a narrative, for emotional structure. So you have a lot of people that are responsible for a lot of different processes. In music every musician thinks that he or she can hear everything. But it’s not true. Your ears can sometimes focus  only on certain things. And if you’ve got a producer, he can help you to see the bigger picture, to hear the music itself, without its history.

P.Ch.: That’s interesting. Your last eight CDs I think were released in ECM, but your previous recording were released by your own label. Could you compare these two situations? Was it a big change to work with ECM?

N.B.: It was a big change. Those first recordings were without producer, we did them as a team, two or three players thinking together. Producing means sound mixing, directions in how production should sound, and things like that. When I started working with ECM I was really happy that I wear only three hats on my head. The hat of composer, the hat of player, and the hat of performer. For me it is great, that I can focus on some more important things, not on everything. I like team effort, I like to share tasks. For me it’s not about is it right or wrong. I’m interested in how we, as a team, can shape something. I respect different ideas and solutions.

P.Ch.: Okay. Changing topic, I’ve heard from several musicians that it is difficult to musician from Europe to play in USA. Do you have same experience?

N.B.: It’s not difficult, the only problem is that you have to get a working visa, while American musician do not need to have a working visa for Europe. That is completely unfair but it has to do with the history and the world situation. I’ve been playing there since 2006 and usually every year or two we have bigger tours and small festivals. It is always very good experience for us. There is not a problem there, except this working visa. American authorities make it very difficult for us to get this visa. For Polish, French Swiss players it’s the same problem. It costs a lot, it’s complex to get it also. Also the timing is important, when you’re planning a tour. This is not a musical reason. It’s all about burocratic and power game reason.

P.Ch.: Could you find any differences between European and American audiences?

N.B.: In Europe we experience a lot of local cultures. Every country has their good players and its own history, even many cities. Different languages, different magazines. Everything is organised federal-like. In the USA it’s also a big federal country, but everywhere it is the same language, one commercial space. But if you get there it doesn’t matter where do you come from, they’re very open. They have a lot of respect for a band – a band as an organism. In USA in almost every city you’ve got a famous band from that city. It happened a lot when we were there, that people were asking ,,Are you a band?”, while in Europe its more about certain artists. In Europe it’s like in Poland you’ve got different jazz history than in Spain for example. In the USA we received very open ears from audience. I like that very much.

P.Ch.: Nik, as a Switzerland citizen do you feel that the government helped the musicians during covid lockdown?

N.B.: Yes. I have to admit, that we had a strong support, very quick. There was also a respect for people that were paying a lot before pandemic. You had to show what you’ve been doing before lockdown, and it was very fair comparison. We’ve been playing for twenty years, and since maybe fifteen we’re playing a lot. I had to show what was our income. We were not able to play in my club, all of the gigs were cancelled. I think it was fair that when I proved that we were playing a lot before, and the income from playing was high, the support was very good. When you were fresh musician on the market, like a young player, you could also ask for additional support. I think that in Switzerland this government support was on a very high level and it was well organised. Of course it wasn’t forever, but there were also some foundations involved. I think that no one was in really desperate situation. Because all of that I have lots of respect for government and culture organizations.

P.Ch.: When you talk to your colleagues, musicians, do you feel that they were happy with government’s support?

N.B.: Part of them were happy. There are a lot of musician that took it for granted. They weren’t playing that much before, they were not international players, and maybe they felt that they should get bigger support. But I think that if you weren’t play that much in last five years you cannot ask for bigger support, it’s clear for me. It was bigger problem for freelance technicians, because they were not hired and they depended on festivals, which hired them for certain time. There we had few problems and we helped the musicians organisation to help these guys. For them it was very difficult.

P.Ch.: We don’t have time to go deeper into this topic, but in Poland it wasn’t that great.

N.B.: Yeah. I’ve heard that also from musicians from other countries.

P.Ch.: My last question is: You’ve got three great projects, each of them is highly recognised, each of them was released on ECM, so what are your next plans?

N.B.: During pandemic we were working on my material, we’ve got the new bass player in Ronin. The working band for me is constant development. The next release will be either with Mobile, or with Ronin. Mobile is now a trio and also we have a complete new programme. So these two band are constantly developing. I have also new scores coming out, I wrote down lots of Ronin tunes and I’ve got new album coming out as a score also. I’m releasing a lot of scores to also share the music and the idea behind them. Also my book is out now. I wrote it to have some kind of contact with younger musicians and creative people. So one of the processes is to share my ideas and see how it develops. It takes a lot of time to write you know.

P.Ch. Thank you very much for your time.

N.B.: Thank you.