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Jon Balke: Warp

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Jon Balke is probably best known for his Magnetic North Orchestra, a project dedicated to exploring (or erasing) the boundaries between form and freedom in large-ensemble jazz. Warp is a solo piano record that continues Balke’s interest in extending formats.

It is not quite a solo piano record though. Balke’s instrumentation is listed as “piano, sound images.” He first laid down 16 piano tracks at Rainbow Studio in Oslo. Then he gathered some “field recordings.” They come from “sounds of city life” like schoolyards and braking trams, and also from the huge ambient space of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. These “sound images” were “processed” and, along with unspecified electronic enhancements, blended into the final mix.

The outcome never seems gimmicky. Warp is organic and quietly stunning. It reimagines what a solo piano record might be. The core piano music contains cryptic chordal melodies like “Amarinthine,” single-note reveries like “This Is the Movie,” restless forays like “Shibboleth” and intense recurrent gestures like “Slow Spin.” By themselves, Balke’s vignettes would be intriguing, as nodes of suggestive form. But they are altered and deepened by the active sonic environments in which they are placed. The “sound images” are elusive phenomena, distant details that whisper on the far horizon of the music. Perhaps they echo Balke’s piano figures, in arcane correspondences.

Or perhaps they contradict them. They always open them to endless implication. “Kantor” is a special example of the challenge and allure of this music. Clusters of treble notes barely break the silence, but then that background silence comes mysteriously alive with the barely audible voices of singers Mattis Myrland and Wenche Losnegaard. They are so far away they are in another world. Warp proves that solo piano records can touch more worlds than one.

Originally Published