Jon Balke: Discourses (ECM/digital outlets)

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Jon Balke: Discourses (ECM/digital outlets)

Norwegian pianist Jon Balke is quite unlike any other on the ECM label.

Elsewhere first encountered him about four decades ago when he was in his Twenties and briefly in the Arild Andersen Quartet, but we lost touch with him until his engrossing solo piano outing Book of Velocities in 2006.

Then he went off our radar again.

He had often melded acoustic piano with sonic effects and field recordings (as on Velocities and this new Discourses album). So he creates piano pieces which can be romantic and/or reflective, but sometimes setting them against slightly unusual background textures through studio processing of gentle cello scrapes and/or ambient soundscapes.

Here, for example, on the brief Assumptions there are soft scratches and what sound like synth bubbles behind the busy piano, and after the notes fade you can discern the distant voices coming through.

These short 16 pieces – so averaging about 2.30 – are like snapshots of improvised mood pieces, some with a furrowed brow (The Certainties) and others more patient.

Classically trained, Balke isn't averse to a little stentorian playing and intense flourishes, and that suits the purpose of the album.

Balke says in recent times he had become disturbed by the base nature of social discourse – all that anger, people talking past each other, arguments – and because language was important to him these pieces reflect various states of discourse, as reflected in their titles: The Assumptions, The Polarisation, The Second Argument, The First Afterthought etc.

Because of that you may discern speech patterns in his playing: the rapid flow of words rendered as notes, the pauses for reflection where silence speaks, the to-and-fro of a dialogue . . .

And then there are the odd sonic effects which emerge and dissipate.

Certainly pianists, avant-garde jazz musicians and contemporary classical composers will get something out of Discourses.

Whether it travels beyond those spheres will be down to the listeners' willingness to go along with overarching idea and how the playing so rapidly changes shape and emotional place.

Might we suggest the more approachable but similarly conceived album (solo piano, effects) Book of Velocities as the entry point to Jon Balke?

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You can hear Discourses on Spotify here.


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