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June 2008

Jon Balke
Book of Velocities
ECM Records

Book of Velocities is the kind of album that keeps the uninitiated away from improvised music. Start with the pretentious way the disc of short solo piano pieces is organized and titled. The first five tunes are clustered as “Chapter I.” The next three are “Chapter II,” the next five are “Chapter III,” and the next four are “Chapter IV.” The final two are listed as “Epilogue.” The reason for this, it is explained to us, is that Jon Balke—and we quote—“sketches an idea at the piano, quite spontaneously, waits a few seconds and develops the idea through a series of takes, and then moves on to a new ‘chapter.’” Ohhhh-kay.

As a listener, it’s difficult to know how to react to this music or what one is supposed to take away from it, but this much is certain: Balke is lucky he’s on ECM, because the label’s imprimatur confers more austerity on the recording than it deserves. Each piece feels precisely like an undeveloped idea, which, one supposes, is what a “sketch” is. But George Winston could do this in his sleep, and so could many amateurs. The difference is that amateurs don’t record an hour of it and sell it for $18 a pop.

To be fair, Balke, a Norwegian pianist, might be outside his comfort zone here. He’s known for his work leading chamber ensembles and orchestras, so perhaps the nakedness of a solo piano recording doesn’t suit him. But here’s some advice if he ever goes it alone again: Slow down the velocity and put some thought into it next time.

Originally published in June 2008
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