Jon Balke: Book of Velocities (ECM 2010)

Book of Velocities

Jon Balke
Book of Velocities

Jon Balke piano
Recorded September 2006 at Radio Studio DRS, Zürich
Engineer: Markus Heiland
Produced by Manfred Eicher

“We believe that mere movement is life, and that the more velocity it has, the more it expresses vitality.”
–Rabindranath Tagore

Tagore’s statement harbors an implicit question: Does vitality necessarily correlate with velocity? Wittingly or not, Jon Balke would seem to have an answer in this unique album. After a series of memorable appearances on ECM as sideman and group leader (notably, in the latter vein, with his Magnetic North Orchestra), we at last find the Norwegian pianist unaccompanied. The title alone is enough to place the music in a modern tradition of fragmentary collections: Bartók’s Mikrokosmos and Kurtág’s Játékok come most immediately to mind. Yet listening to what Balke has done with both form and instrument, one quickly realizes the profundity of his crafting.

Divided into four Chapters and an Epilogue, Book of Velocities extricates the finer implications of its elements—improvised and composed alike—via thorough examination of the piano itself. By way of introduction, “Giada” flutters between plucked piano strings and dotted punctuations at the keyboard proper. The descriptive cast of “Scintilla” that follows sets the stage for a procession of dreamlike actors, each a cipher for something elemental and transfigured. Other examples in this regard include “Single Line” and “Double Line,” “Gum Bounce,” and the nail-scratched mysteries of “Finger Bass,” the latter droning in Gurdjieff-like meditation.

Many pieces, like the penultimate “Sonance,” exert an organic influence of exhale and inhale, of speech and pause. Indeed, the deepest moments are those least audible, as in the non-invasive contact of “Resilience,” in which one finds the piano’s fantasy life made real. The bodily nature of the music thus shines at carefully selected moments of expression. Whether in the substrate of its own becoming or in the opacity of its outer skin, Balke’s language refashions grammar through every contour. In this respect, the poignant “Drape Hanger” is among the more precious turns of phrase and foreshadows the photorealism of “Scrim Stand,” undulating in real time.

The mirrors of this disc are more than reflective; they are embodied, a dance between beauty and blues. Slowly and surely, Balke turns paths of teardrops into channels of blood flow. This is his art distilled in a crucible of origins until pure feeling remains. It transcends the need for means and returns to the sky whence it came.

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