Until recently I hadn’t realised that Olympic nations were setting up their own ‘hospitality houses’ throughout the Games to entertain athletes, expats and VIPs. And I would have missed them entirely were it not for the Swiss takeover of Glaziers Hall, which looks over the Thames from the south side of London Bridge.
At an outdoor stage by Southwark Cathedral, the Swiss House has been presenting Zürich Sounds, a series of gigs promoted by the Swiss city to demonstrate its cultural muscle. The series has highlighted a Swiss scene that many jazz fans might not be aware of.
On Wednesday night it was the turn of Ronin, a quintet led by pianist Nik Bärtsch. The band would not be immediate choices for an outdoor gig on a sunny day. Ronin play a weekly gig in a Zürich club and their rhythmically-charged, minimalist — hardcore even — improvised music and all-black attire probably better suit that atmosphere. That said, the healthy crowd for this gig gave the band a warm reception and they made their music with complete commitment.
The instruments Ronin use to create their distinctive sound are drum kit, electric bass, bass clarinet and extra percussion set-up. It’s a line-up that makes for a bottom-heavy texture, lending a dark tone to the obsessively repeated rhythmic blocks that dominate the band’s music.
Bärtsch commented from the stage that Olympic athletes require a “combination of emotion and absolute precision, and so does our music”. Some of the grooves during the hour-long set were Reichian in their discipline; others were more jagged, with echoey moments from the bass clarinet. Everything felt instinctively precise but without losing the spirit of improvisation that clearly drives this group. I heard less evidence of the emotion, but Bärtsch and co are Swiss after all — it is no doubt to be found underneath all those layers of rhythm.
Here is a clip of Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin in action in Berlin:
The final of the four Zürich Sounds gigs is on tonight with two sets (6 and 9pm) by singer Ingrid Lukas. Admission is free.