Jon Balke & Magnetic North Orchestra: Diverted Travels (ECM 1886)

Diverted Travels

Jon Balke & Magnetic North Orchestra
Diverted Travels

Magnetic North Orchestra
Per Jørgensen trumpet, vocals
Fredrik Lundin bass flute, saxophones
Jon Balke piano and keyboards
Bjarte Eike violin
Peter Spissky violin
Thomas Pitt bass violin
Helge Andreas Norbakken percussion
Ingar Zach percussion
Recorded September and November 2003 at La Buissonne Studios, Pernes-Les-Fontaines and Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineers: Gérard de Haro and Jan Erik Kongshaug
Mixed at Rainbow Studio by Jon Balke, Manfred Eicher, and Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Jon Balke and Manfred Eicher

For his third Magnetic North Orchestra release (following Further and Kyanos), pianist Jon Balke pools together a new band of Scandinavian talent under the same name in the project’s most focused iteration to date. With only trumpeter Per Jørgensen retained from the original lineup, the overall effect is that of a watchmaker and his apprentices turned composers. Such attention to detail has always been part and parcel of Balke’s recognizable approach, but nowhere more so than in the facets of Diverted Travels, where it manifests in shorter pieces, a few of which hover on either side of the one-minute fence. The reconfigured roster reveals itself in the album’s wealth of intimate sub-combinations. The breathy horns and electric piano of “Sink,” for instance, turn ice into water and set a climatic precedent for its companions.

“Machinery” sets the clockwork beat to which the band tunes its heart. The chamber aesthetic so vital to Balke’s aural psyche sings with vibrancy here. Indications of his encounters with West African music are already apparent, clarifying themselves in such pieces as “Nutating,” “In Patches,” and “River,” in which the pulse becomes the melody. The latter’s muted trumpet is especially organic and foils the waterwheel motions of its backing with genuine augury. “Climb” is another energizing walkabout with all the makings of a nervous breakdown yet with none of the weak spots. Agitations darken into a lullaby beneath a giant eyelid closing to reveal the starlit canopy of its inner surface.

“Columns” boasts the unmistakable vocal stylings of Jørgensen, whose tense histrionics slalom like an aria from a lost Michael Mantler opera through spokes of arid strings. The trumpeter reveals further mysteries in “Deep,” working his craft through the prism of saxophonist Fredrik Lundin amid a smattering of percussion. Likewise, the mysterious “Downslope” is an album highlight. Rendering molecules of horns within a sul ponticello fringe, it turns air into breath and breath into bodies, footsteps audible on the plains as they balance a hunter’s lance atop the scalp of the setting sun. In the shadow of this piece is “The Drive,” a drone of stunning capacity.

At nearly seven minutes, “And On” is the longest selection, a storm that utilizes the full force of the MNO to evoke changes in atmospheric pressure. Balke’s pianism is wondrously compact, running tighter and tighter circles until it expends itself with jouissance. How else to deal with this than by “Falling,” which brings together the three violinists and Jørgensen’s recorder-like throat in ashen harmony, signing off this love letter to cloudy skies with a taste of antiquity.

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