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Jon Balke

Norwegian pianist Jon Balke is an avant-garde-leaning musician with a bent toward mixing various stylistic influences, including contemporary jazz, post-bop, rock, folk, world, and classical musics. Since the end of the 1970s Balke has worked on numerous musical projects across Europe, Africa, India and the USA. During the early 1980s, Balke established his reputation as a composer, writing for theatrical productions, art exhibitions, and chamber groups, while composing extensively for jazz groups ranging from small ensembles to big bands. His eight-piece Magnetic North Orchestra existed between 1992's Further and 2004's Diverted Travels and was known for its uncommon instrumentation: three string players, two trumpets, two saxophones, and keyboards. Since releasing 2005's Statements he has also led the pecussion-based outfit, Batagraf; they issued Say and Play in 2011 and Delights of Decay in 2015. Further, he has worked with visual artists and dancers. In his performance and compositions, Balke displays a questing mind, constantly seeking new instrumental palettes with which to work. Since 2009 he has also led the international ethnic music ensemble Siwan. Their albums include thier prize winning self titled debut in 2009, 2017's Nahnou Houm and 2022's Hafla. He released his debut album, On and On, in 1991. A year later he made his ECM debut with Nonsentration. A member of the Magnetic North Orchestra, Balke has also released several albums with the ensemble, including Kaynos in 2002 and Diverted Travels in 2004. In 2007, Balke paired up with a similarly inclined group of musicians -- including trumpeter Jon Hassell, violinist Kheir Eddine M'Kachiche, and vocalist Amina Alaoui -- to form Siwan, an ensemble that focused deeply on Andalusian culture and the attempt at its eradication during the Inquisition. The self-titlted 2009 release won the album of the year prize among the German Record Critics ("Jahrespreis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik"). A year later, Balke held the piano chair on Lars Möller's 2010 date Trialogue on Imogena (the group also included Morten Lund). He assembled his own group, Batagraf, for 2013's Say and Play. The ensemble was fronted by a vocalist and included piano, electronics, and ten percussionists. After touring with this group, Balke took time off to reassess. When he did emerge, it was with 2016's Warp, a collection of solo piano pieces altered by mixing vocals, field recordings, and live electronics to shift the perception of his compositions. In January of the following year, Balke revised the Siwan band around a new singer and oud player, Algerian-Andalus Mona Boutchebak, and entered a recording studio in Copenhagen. His concept this time -- which also boasted the bowed-stringed kemençe and goblet tombak drum along with his keyboards -- was to assert the question of how the world may have developed if the three religions (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity) had managed to coexist in the aftermath of what happened in Andalusia. From mass persecution, violence, and cultural destruction, Balke assembled poetry from a range of sources for Boutchebak to sing, including Persian Sufi mystic Attar, Saint John of the Cross, poet/playwright Lope de Vega, and more. The album, titled Nahnou Houm, was issued by ECM in November. He recorded with his percussion group Batagraf on 2018's Delights of Decay for Jazzland featuring Mathias Eick and Trygve Seim. Balke then worked with producer Manfred Eicher to further develop the methodology they had introduced on Warp four years earlier. Integrated in the resonant sound of Balke's piano music are layered soundscapes of processed material that he described as "distorted reflections and reverberations from the world," with thoughts on political and social language. Comprised of 16 short pieces, he titled the set Discourses; it was issued during the spring of 2020. Balke returned to working with Siwan on 2022's Hafla. This time he set to music poems by Wallada bint al-Mustakfi, the free-thinking 11th century Ummayad princess of Cordoba and the lover of Ibn Zaydun, the great poet of al-Andalus and broujght them, fragment by fragment to Mona Boutchebak who did her own translations into Arabic. The set was released in April followed by a European tour.
© Matt Collar & Thom Jurek /TiVo
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