Zurich, Switzerland - Club Exile with Nik Bärtsch and Mihai Balabaș
Monday, July 29, 2013 at 8:00PM
Trey Gunn in coaching, nik bartsch, teaching, time

Zurich, Switzerland July 29, 2013 -- performance with Nik Bärtsch & Mihai Balabaș at Club Exil.

I ended up blowing off my flight from Munich to Zurich and taking the train directly from Innsbruck. It was a much, much nicer way to travel through the Alps. Tobias went with me, which was great. We got to debrief the tapping workshop and do a fair bit of gear-geek talk.

I arrived in Zurich very weak and immediately went to sleep for another 18 hours. Nik (Bärtsch) had asked me to join him in his weekly performance at Club Exil the next day (Monday, August 29). Nik’s band Ronin has been playing a weekly Monday night gig in Zurich for years. If you want to know how to get good as a band, look no further than this: play a weekly gig, year after year after year. When I met David Harrington of the Kronos Quartet he told me that they rehearsed 5 days a week. Why is Kronos so damn good and how do they learn so much material so quickly? They rehearse regularly and have been doing so for decades.

Ronin wasn't performing this Monday -- Nik was playing solo piano and flushing out the night by bringing me in along with a wonderful violinist from Romania, Mihai Balabaș. Nik and Mihai have a history of working together and he was also attending the upcoming workshop.

As tricky as Nik’s pieces are, and as shitty as I felt, I wasn’t going to pass up an opportunity like this. So I rallied myself and made my way to the club the next day. Nik also does a class for musicians every Monday afternoon. I went to this as a warm-up for the night. This was a very cool introduction to the work we would be tackling in the workshop. Counting, clapping and movement for the first hour. For the second hour we dug into Modul 32 (Nik’s pieces are called "Modul" along with a number).  Modul 32 has some super-frigging tricky bits to it. Much, much trickier than any of my listening sessions had uncovered. Nik seems to have a system for breaking down the underlying rhythmic structures, so that they can first be approached away from the instruments. Then, you move to the instruments. All along the way are many practices that incorporate various types of bodywork/movement. I was liking this. A lot.

I was going to be playing “Tehillim” that night, so I sound checked that. Then we decided to play Modul 17 as a trio. That one was much easier for me to slip right into than Modul 32. Although where I felt the "one" in the groove was not where Nik puts it.  Rather than push my craftsmanship to its edge, I decided to go with the professional strategy. That means "go with what is working right here and now." So, my "one" was different from the other two guys.

Club Exile was pretty sweet, not to mention one block from my hotel! Nik has built a very clever piano garage into the stage setup so the piano can completely disappear and reappear with ease. The sound was great and the vibe was perfect for this music.

After a little hotel time I showed up to hear Nik dig into his solo set. I have heard Nik with Ronin live once – earlier in the year in Seattle. I have all of their recordings and have spent quite a bit of time combing through the pieces/performances. But I have to say, I was really taken aback by his solo performance. He was still playing the same repertoire that the group plays, just solo versions. His performance had all the precision and play of the group. But the character and breadth of the performance was entirely different. He seemed to flow like a giant wave at times, letting the musical ideas grow and grow and then subside slowly. I suppose you also get to hear all the subtleties of the piano much more clearly without the other instruments (the group currently consists of bass clarinet, electric bass and drums, along with Nik on the piano). While I love the group, his solo performance was super fresh to my ears.

Then I was up. I remember thinking, "we're not playing loud at all in this place!" Nik likes the sound very acoustic and so I wasn’t blasting like in Mexico. It was very cool to have this second performance of "Tehillim" coming out of my fingers. A very different context – a smallish, dark club with an acoustic kind of sound. The piece went quite well, as my confidence with it was growing. Even with this lower sound level, I felt like I could really dig into the heavier lines. Though I am now convinced that I need to edit a few sections down a bit, taking 14 minutes down to 13.

Next up was Mihai and Nik. They played Modul 32 and it soared. I have no idea how Mihai pulled this off. The rhythmic devices in this piece are like walking a tightrope over a lava field and, all the while, Nik tossing sabers at your rope. But Mihai delivered, along with playing some super cool violin solos.

Then I joined for Modul 17. At the sound check we had made a general map of the piece with a few musical cues and a large shape of how things would evolve and grow. To be honest, I wasn’t feeling very well at all at this point and wasn’t sure if I could remember the cues. So I just relaxed into knowing that I would play the right thing at the right moment even if I got lost.

And what a fantastic sound the three of us made! This Modul was a perfect vehicle for how I play – a strong groove in five! I chose two different sounds for this. Ummm…make that three sounds. The first was some dripping high sustains for the beginning. For the middle, a clean guitar but with mutes on the strings. And the third, which I saved for the heavier grooving sections, was the full-on bass end of the instrument.

All of this seemed to work. And, I had a lot of fun leaving the groove in five behind and playing around Nik’s pocket, which is impeccable. Mihai danced all around us.

We wrapped up the night with a cold beer and I headed to bed. The next day we were taking the train and bus high up into the Southern Alps, very close to the Italian border.

Article originally appeared on Trey Gunn (http://www.treygunn.com/).
See website for complete article licensing information.