Throughout his now five-album catalog for Posi-Tone, pianist Art Hirahara has often filtered his music through the emotional touchstones of his life, creating what amounts to a sonic journal. On Balance Point, he displays what could be called a New Age sensibility while shearing away any cloying traces of stereotypical New Age music. That this well-considered testimonial to peace, poise, and spiritual balance happened to arrive in the midst of a terrifying pandemic adds luster to the enterprise.
For Hirahara, balance is achieved by being equal parts grounded and ascendant, as referenced in the Henry David Thoreau quote on the album’s inside jacket. He doesn’t shirk from sentiment—the solo opener, “Mother’s Song,” was inspired by a Brazilian lullaby—or from New Age tropes, as when he names “Ascent” after the final resting pose in yoga. But the firm delicacy of his touch (reminiscent of Chick Corea), the modesty of his approach, and the varied pace of his set list cleanse away any skepticism.
Six of the 13 songs are performed by a trio including drummer Rudy Royston and bassist Joe Martin, a rhythm section with the imagination to illuminate the stark balladry of “Homage”; the chops to pull off the brittle Afrocentric rhythms of the Randy Weston tribute “Blessed Son, Mr. Weston”; the flair to engage in the soft-shoe turn of “Had It Happened” (a contrafact of “It Could Happen to You”); and the sinew to steady the frame on the Cecil Taylor-like pound-and-prance of “Fulcrum.” As with Hirahara’s third Posi-Tone disc, Central Line, the pianist spices the mix with a guest saxophonist on a few songs. Melissa Aldana proves to be a shrewd choice, delivering patient escalation from kindling spark to bonfire on the title song and adding a welcoming voice to the somber “Lament for the Fallen.”
That final song was originally meant to honor the elders of improvisation who have passed on. The pandemic has made it a much fuller bouquet, cast in the context of a more uncertain new age.