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On a recent road trip, my companion and I listened to Holon, the latest full-length from Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin. “Is this jazz?” she asked after a couple of tracks. It’s a good question. The Zurich-based quintet uses typical jazz instrumentation (piano, reeds, bass, and percussion) and records for one of the genre’s most prominent labels (ECM). But it eschews what most people expect from a jazz group: that is, heaping helpings of improv. Bärtsch, a pianist who is influenced by minimalism and beat-based pop, writes music that is as predetermined as it is funky. Yet, for all of its structural rigidity, the pianist’s output is not without its freewheeling moments. Whenever the monosyllabically named Sha steps into the spotlight, the reed player evokes the modal improvisations of musicians like John Coltrane and Jan Garbarek. Brief though they are, episodes such as these suggest that yes, companion, this heavily rhythmic music is—and can only be called—jazz. Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin performs at 8 & 10 p.m. at Blues Alley, 1073 Wisconsin Ave. NW. $20. (202) 337-4141. —Brent Burton