Jon Balke/Siwan: Hafla (ECM 2726)

Jon Balke

Mona Boutchebak vocals, kwitra
Derya Turkan kemençe
Bjarte Eike Baroque violin, leader
Helge Norbakken percussion
Pedram Khavar Zamini tombak
Per Buhre vocals, viola
Jon Balke keyboards, electronics, tombak
Recorded May/June 2021
The Village Recording, Copenhagen
Engineer: Thomas Vang
Recording producer: Jon Balke
Mastering: Christoph Stickel
Cover photo: Sarah Murtaja
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: April 22, 2022

Hafla is the third go-around for keyboardist-composer Jan Balke and his group, Siwan. Taking inspiration from the cultural melting pot that was al-Andalus yet retying those threads into a friendship bracelet of striking originality, Balke and company retain the character of each idiom while achieving an overall design. Through the talents of Algerian singer Mona Boutchebak, Turkish kamancheh virtuoso Derya Turkan, Iranian tombak master Pedram Khavar Zamini, Norwegian percussionist Helge Norbakken, and violinist Bjarte Eike and his Barokksolistine, Balke summons the utmost familiarity from places and times that far outweigh our experiences as citizens of the 21st century. And while coronavirus restrictions prevented the ensemble from recording in the studio all at once, one would never guess the cutting and pasting required to bring the album to its present form in light of its hermetic coherence.

Balke’s compositions constitute the entire program, save for Boutchebak’s “Mirada Furtiva,” recalling a love so strong that it can never overstep the boundaries of modesty that keep it from consuming itself. Setting the poetry of Ibn Zaydun (1003-1071), the singer accompanies herself on the kwitra (Algerian lute), joined by low stirrings of wires and bows. Zaydun’s lover and the Ummayad princess of Córdoba, Wallada bint al-Mustakfi (1010-1091), is the verbal force behind the program’s opener, “Tarraquab” (Visit). Its lilting character immediately transports us into a cinematic world of strings and percussion. Boutchebak evokes flowing transpositions of bodies into spirits and back again, scenting the evening air with yearnings for touch.

Other poets who find themselves redrawn beneath the Siwan overlay include Ibn Sara As-Santarini (Santarém, 1043-1123), Ibn Sa’id al-Maghribi (Alcalá la Real, 1213-1286), Abu Bakr al-Turtushi (Tortosa, 1059-1126 or 1127), and Ibn Hazm (Córdoba, 994-1064), all of whom express an intimate relationship with that most sensuous interim before the dawn. Whether in the bright harmonies of “La Estrella Fugaz” (The Shooting Star) or the gentle strength of “Diálogo en la Noche” (Dialogue in the Night), we encounter selves divided by pining and expectation. And in “Enamorado de Júpiter” (In Love with Jupiter), the gloom of unrequited affections unfurls a canvas for the brush of a pained lyric:

Knowing well that I am the full moon in the clear sky,
You fell in love with Jupiter, the darkest planet.

Braiding the invisible forces of “Arrihu Aqwadu Ma Yakunu Li-Annaha” and the seeking qualities of “Uquállibu” (Absence), Boutchebak attaches threads of continuity between burning hearts that have only the moon as their messenger. Even the two instrumental interludes, “Línea Oscura” and “Saeta,” seem to communicate in verse, so that when images as powerful as those expressed throughout “Wadadtu” (Is There No Way), in which the desire to become one with another achieves fiery tension, rise to the surface, it is all we can do to hold on to the rhythms for assurance of reaching the shore. As violist Per Buhre sings this song in English against a wash of strings and kamancheh to bid us farewell, the linguistic change of clothing starches the ears, making us realize just how far our tongues have yet to travel.

Jon Balke: Discourses (ECM 2648)

2648 X

Jon Balke

Jon Balke piano, sound processing
Recorded December 2019, Auditorio Stelio Molo, RSI Lugano
Engineers: Stefano Amerio and Laura Persia
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: May 15, 2020

Not so much following in the footprints of 2007’s Book of Velocities and 2016’s Warp as pouring plaster into them, grinding the hardened results into dust, and throwing them into the winds of change, pianist Jon Balke refashions his solo space with frequencies more attuned than ever to the pulse of our zeitgeist. First inspired by the 24-hour news cycle and its emotional rollercoaster (and by the rhetorical lines used to draw boundaries between stories, who tells them, and the events they describe), the pieces of which this latest album is comprised took an even starker turn as the politics of 2019 unleashed their bipolar mind games for all to scrutinize. If nothing else, this backstory helps us understand the subjective interplay of electronics, field recordings, and instrumental treatments woven throughout. Said treatments—what Balke calls “reflections from the room”—have a self-generating quality, arising only as necessary, and even then as an echo of something implied.

The track titles, as evocative as the music, are but stepping stones to answers that supersede their questions: we can read conflict into the gnarled contours of “the first argument” and “the second argument” just as we can open ourselves to possibility in “the why” and “the how.” But for me the greatest value of these markers is an attendant opportunity to forget them. For while there’s a suitably fragmentary quality to “the self and the opposition,” all of that goes away once the sustain pedal goes down, and the fluidity between those identities warms us with promises of another entirely. But this dream is short-lived, because reality has too much to say to a world in lockdown. And in any case, “the certainties” is the least certain of them all. As its pianism moves from one cerebral island to another, a leviathan breathes just below the surface, following in wait to strike.

It’s difficult to extract and uphold certain moments over others, but I would direct the listener’s attention to “the facilitator” as an especially haunting instance of Balke’s aesthetic concerns. The piano may be foregrounded, but its ghosts are drawn from drone (most likely a manipulated cello but sounding for all like bowed piano strings). Another worthwhile focal point is “the container,” wherein electronica lie in wait—only not to pounce, but creep into awareness like a rising sun pulls itself up by curling its fingers over a mountain ridge.

The album ends with three “afterthoughts,” ranging from watery percussion and internal string plucking to hints of technology without imposition. The last is an alarm for birds to fly away and for trees to uproot themselves in search of a new planet where their symbiosis may thrive. This leaves only broken human beings—their hearts unfurled like children’s play mats and beset with toy cars, weathered streets, and enmeshed topographies—to wander their halls of mirrors, wondering when they took the first wrong turn.

Jon Balke/Siwan: Nahnou Houm (ECM 2572)

Nahnou Houm

Jon Balke
Nahnou Houm

Mona Boutchebak vocals
Derya Turkan kemençe
Helge Norbakken percussion
Pedram Khavar Zamini tumbak
Jon Balke keyboards
Bjarte Eike violin, leader
Alison Luthmers violin
Øivind Nussle violin
Milos Valent viola
Per Buhre viola
Torbjørn Köhl viola
Judith Maria Blomsterberg violoncello
Mime Brinkmann violoncello
Johannes Lundberg double bass
Recorded January 2017 at Madstun and The Village Recording, Copenhagen
Engineer: Thomas Vang
Mixed May 2017 at The Village Recording by Thomas Vang and Jon Balke
Mastering: Christoph Stickel, MSM Studios, Munich
Produced by Jon Balke
Release date: November 3, 2017

Even when we drink entire seas, we stand amazed
that our lips are still as dry as dunes…
and endlessly we seek the sea to wet our lips, without seeing
that our lips are seaside dunes and we the sea.
–Attar Faridu Din

Divisive times call for unifying music, and that’s exactly what Jon Balke’s Siwan project has created. Taking Al Andalus and its culture of inclusion—convivencia—as inspiration, the pianist and his progressive assembly weave for us an anthem of humanity. “There is no room or time now for the division between them and us,” writes Balke in a liner note. “We are them and they are us.” Such thinking is already inherent in the instrumentation. Encompassing Balke himself on keyboards, Pedram Khavar Zamini and Helge Norbakken on percussion, and Derya Turkan onkemençe, all infused by the strings of Barokksolistene under the lead violin of Bjarte Eike, it feels alive with borderless awakening. But the light of that dawn rests surely in singer Mona Boutchebak, who joins the project in solidarity.

Boutchebak’s voice is quill to the ensemble’s paper, an artisan of a yearning so ancient that it feels immediately with us. The doorway to it all is “Duda” (Doubt), wherein poetry of Ibn Al Zaqqaq (12th century, Spain) ride a Baroque-like wave of strings and harpsichord. This transitions into a more delicate accompaniment of percussion as Boutchebak sounds the call for a sweeter love than that with which the world has become so distractedly obsessed. In response, the mournful cry of Turkan’s kemençe weeps for fallen grace.

Kindred spirits flow through the ensuing songs. Across spectrums of sorrow in “Castigo” (another setting of Ibn Al Zaqqaq), Boutchebak understands that singing is closest to speaking: without communication, it fails. And communicate she does, speaking the words of Saint John of the Cross (16th century, Spain) in “Sin Nada Querer” (Wanting Nothing) as if they were letters to be opened and read by candlelight. “To attain pleasure in everything,” she begins, “seek pleasure in nothing.” A philosophy put into practice by the musicians at hand.

Intimate details underscore these sentiments. Distant storms and rainfall trace the edges of “Itimad” and “Desmayar Se” (Swooning), each an ode to the timelessness of love, while the title track and “Del Rey” dig into atmospheric soil with crowding voices. The latter is one of a few instrumental ligaments, of which Zamini’s “ZemZemeh” is a highlight. Other remarkable amalgamations include the fluidly arranged “Aun Bebiendo” (Even When We Drink), which sets a text of Attar Faridu Din, a 13th-century Sufi mystic from Nichapur, Iran, and the Andalusian traditional “Ma Kontou,” for which Boutchebak sings unaccompanied, repeating the verse like a mantra. Because truth is always worth hearing, and must be repeated until it shines.

Jon Balke: Warp (ECM 2444)

2444 X

Jon Balke

Jon Balke piano, sound images
Piano recorded September 2014 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Sound images recorded and processed at Madstun by Audun Kleive and Jon Balke
Field recordings by Jon Balke
Mixed September 2015 at RSI Studio, Lugano by Jon Balke, Manfred Eicher, and Stefano Amerio (engineer)
Mastered at MSM Studios, Munich by Christoph Stickel
Produced by Jon Balke and Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 12, 2016

In a catalog rich with singular artists, the ECM discography of Jon Balke is without parallel. On Warp, the Norwegian pianist retracts his improvisational claws into even deeper levels of possibility, seeking connections between sound, environment, and the infinite spaces that blur where one ends and the other begins. It’s more than a formula, but a philosophy that has guided his work for the label from the very beginning. Combining freely rendered passages on the piano, recorded at Oslo’s Rainbow Studio, with field recordings and electronics, he doesn’t so much guide the listener as allow himself to be guided as one through uncharted landscapes of expression.

Despite the many kinds of samples, ranging from sounds captured in an Istanbul mosque to an airport announcement read by his daughter Ellinor, there is a uniformity to their purpose as substance. In this sense, it’s almost counterintuitive to spotlight particular tracks over others: each is a vital organ that cannot be removed without compromising the entire organism. The album, then, is more like a film shot in one take, each scene coordinated through a meticulous rehearsal of script, foley, and camerawork—a remarkable feat, given the collage aesthetic at play.

Warped Balke

From the beginning, internal dialogues are the norm, whether through abstract meanings or their material production. Much of the latter is metallic in origin, torn from broken machines and other castaway objects yearning for recovery. Shades of church organ lend sanctity to memories that have no purpose but to shed their skin to make room for one degraded copy after another until only stillness remains. Although it’s tempting to interpret all this as an exercise in nostalgia, its sheer presence is enough to dispel such staid notions of emotional suggestion. Rather, it bleeds as if to remind us of its vitality, filling a cup so transparent that every gesture shows through. And when voices sing, they touch a finger to its rim, ringing out with astonishing contrast.

Warp is that rare exemplification of “ambient” music in that it doesn’t create atmosphere for the mere sake of it, but with such a sense of physicality that listeners can’t help but feel like they’ve walked through someplace neither sacred nor profane, but content in having been graced, if only once, by our attention.

Jon Balke: Magnetic Works 1993-2001 (ECM 2182/83)

Magnetic Works

Jon Balke
Magnetic Works 1993-2001

Jens Petter Antonsen trumpet
Per Jørgensen trumpet, vocals
Arve Henriksen trumpet, vocals
Morten Halle alto saxophone, flute
Tore Brunborg tenor and soprano saxophones
Gertrud Økland violin
Trond Villa viola
Jonas Franke-Blom violoncello
Svante Henryson violoncello
Cikada String Quartet
Henrik Hannisdal violin
Odd Hannisdal violin
Marek Konstantynowicz viola
Morten Hannisdal violoncello
Jon Balke piano, keyboards, percussion, electronics
Anders Jormin double-bass
Marilyn Mazur percussion
Audun Kleive drums
Recorded 1993 (Further) and 2001 (Kyanos) at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Solarized recorded 1998 at Audiopol, Skien
Engineer: Audun Kleive
and Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Compilation by Jon Balke
An ECM Production

Magnetic Works confirms keyboardist and composer Jon Balke as one of the most important and eclectic voices of Norwegian jazz. Collecting tracks from two ECM albums and nine of ten tracks from the long out-of-print Solarized (originally released in 1999 on the EmArcy label), this 2-CD set is an instant archival gem. In his liner note for the compilation, Balke describes the music he played with his influential Magnetic North Orchestra as having been “written to allow the individual musicians to enter an optimal playground for their expressivity.” Achieving this was no small feat, but listening to these musicians negotiate their personalities by way of the group’s collective distribution promises fascination for the Balke fan and newcomer alike. Although anyone who owns Further and Kyanos will find nothing new among the selections from those albums, hearing them shuffled in the present context is sure to bring about new relationships and nuances.


Released in 1994, Further was the MNO’s label debut. “Departure” opens both album and compilation with an incantation of reed and brass. It’s a full-throated welcoming into a space abundant in elemental colors. The swinging undercurrent of “Changing Song” is picked up by strings and Per Jørgensen’s distinctive vocals, while drummer Audun Kleive and percussionist Marilyn Mazur flesh out the ecosystem of its unfolding. Balke, meanwhile, emotes at the piano through this lush climate with all the freedom of a bird. In this vein, “Flying Thing” expands on the percussive delicacies at hand, bassist Anders Jormin laddering down into the gears of a most intimate machine. Balke then leads a Brazilian-inspired groove, gliding just under the radar of the horns. “Horizontal Song” is a nostalgic piece of heaven. The string section relays pizzicato accents and arco trails while the horns and percussion flock to bass like wings of shadow to a flame. “Moving Carpet” is another rhythmic standout. So open yet so fully plumed, it boasts a soaring turn from saxophonist Tore Brunborg. “Taraf,” with its lovely altoism from Morten Halle, could very well be a Michael Mantler elegy. The ascending bass line of “Shaded Place” most clearly evokes its title. Like a napping stranger whose dreams are visible in a hovering cloud, it turns but does not wake. Balke and Jormin dig deep for emotional treasure and come up with handfuls.


Kyanos, from 2002, is a far more biologically minded album—not only because of the track names, but also because of the intensely miniscule palette on which Balke and his musicians draw throughout. A seemingly omnipresent breath of electronics sets it apart from other MNO records, as does its prioritized roster, only minimally adorned by strings. The title track is quintessential in its pairing of trumpet and droning wave. Like the tracks “Katabolic” and “Mutatio” that precede it, it has caught something mournful in its net and can only contemplate whether to throw it back or consume it. In this sense, Balke’s role is far more physiological than melodic, as demonstrated by the pianistic surgery of “Plica.” The fertility-laden “In Vitro” and “Zygotos” enrich the microscopy of every snake and ladder, breaking skin at last in the exploratory “Karyon.”


Solarized sits between these two abridged albums, finishing Disc 1 and beginning Disc 2, as if it were somehow too expansive to contain in full. The rolling snare of “Present Position” ushers us into a substantial sound. Jormin’s bassing is weighty and, in this outing at least, indeed the most magnetic force within the group. Balke follows a linear, faceless figure through catacombs of spontaneity, mapped by the string players as Jørgensen’s trumpet lights every torch in the castle. The title track switches above ground. Through-composed beginnings lead to some beautiful leaps from Halle, who reaches catharsis with a hard-hitting altissimo. A phenomenal exercise in rewarded patience. Jormin glows again in “Dark And Slow,” in which trumpeter Arve Henriksen exhales his way through those oaken walls with ease. Like a heartbeat made manifest, “In Degrees” emotes in the name of survival and ends with a satisfying growl.

Because Balke is never one for being longwinded, at nearly eight minutes “Curve” might seem gargantuan were it not for the smoothness of its contours. This is such a visual track, with streets and pedestrians clearly discernible through the fog. The looping “Circular” is a steady but varied groove, Kleive leading all the way. Trumpet and violin double one another in “Vertical,” a short track that feels like a scene in a novel you once read and forgot about. “Encoded” sports an upbeat piano trio vibe. And just as there is nothing cryptic about it, neither is “Elusive Song” difficult to grasp. You can hear the wiping of strings along the piano’s edges, and the trumpet’s swan song touching a hand to the window.

It’s just as well that the seventh track of Solarized, “Linear,” should be left out, for there is nothing linear about the goings on documented here. Balke and his cohorts are champions of neglected songs, and this set ensures those songs will never be neglected again.

Jon Balke/Batagraf: Say And Play (ECM 2245)

Say And Play

Jon Balke
Say And Play

Jon Balke piano, keyboards, electronics, tungoné, darbouka, percussion
Helge Andreas Norbakken sabar, gorong, djembe, talking drum, shakers, percussion
Emilie Stoesen Christensen vocals
Erland Dahlen drums
Torgeir Rebolledo Pedersen poetry reading
Recorded in various locations 2009
Mixed by Olav Torget in Olav Torget’s studios Winter 2010/11
Recording producer: Jon Balke
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
An ECM Production

Jon Balke’s Batagraf project may feel for some to be an indecipherable thing. Yet beneath its calligraphic rib cage beats a primal language. It is both the life force of rhythm and the rhythm of life force, a generative cycle wherefrom speech unloads its dreams into the transport of a welcoming ear. At the core of this incarnation are Balke himself, percussionist Helge Andreas Norbakken, and drummer Erland Dahlen. To these the session adds the voice of jazz singer Emilie Stoesen Christensen and the poetry of Torgeir Rebolledo Pedersen, read in its original Norwegian by the author.


The latter augments some of the album’s most tetrahedral drumming, attaching roots and stems to the muted pianism of “Calmly” and shuffling its tongues in the garden of breathy synths that is “The Wind Calmer.” Further engagements include “Hundred-Handed” and analog textures of “Winds.” Balancing these are the vocals of Christensen, who in “Riddle #1” and “Riddle #2” fleshes out Batagraf’s philosophy most succinctly. These twisted songs of unanswered questions are gyroscopes forever wobbling but never falling. Unsettled rhythms and piano work their way into the subconscious, where knowledge is questioned, answers are deflated, and the clothes line from which every spoken word hangs trembles in anticipation of a new wash. As in the song “One Change,” Christensen embraces all of this as easily as she abandons recognizable words.

As for the drummers, we find them in manifold spirits in the tender “Baka #65,” and of an especially intimate mind in “Everyday Music” and “Vjup,” for the last of which Christensen embarks on a whimsical deconstruction of masculine pride. The level of psychological extraction realized here shows just how adept these musicians are with intellectual needles and sonic threads. Whether following the Jon Hassell-like current of “Tonk” or digging the IDM beat of “Azulito,” they all seem fully present in the moment. Norbakken’s concluding yet inconclusive “GMBH,” the only track not written by Balke, finds even more beauty in distortions—layers of an archaeological dig, each with its own color and interlocking history. By unbinding words from their referents, they learn to swim with the minnows.

(To hear samples of Say And Play, click here.)

Batagraf/Jon Balke: Statements (ECM 1932)


Jon Balke

Frode Nymo alto saxophone
Kenneth Ekornes percussion
Harald Skullerud percussion
Helge Andreas Norbakken percussion
Ingar Zach percussion
Jon Balke keyboards, percussion, vocals, sound processing
Arve Henriksen trumpet
Sidsel Endresen text recitals in English
Miki N´Doye text recital in Wolof
Solveig Slettahjell vocals
Jocely Sete Camara Silva voice
Jennifer Myskja Balke voice
Recorded 2003 and 2004 at “Bugge’s Room” by Andy Miteis
Mixed at “7. Etasje” by Reidar Skår
Mastered at “Lydlab” by Ulf Holand
Produced by Jon Balke

Statements represents a leap in intuition for pianist Jon Balke, who by way of his self-styled “private research forum” Batagraf holds a meeting of percussionists Kenneth Ekornes, Harald Skullerud, Helge Andreas Norbakken, and Ingar Zach, along with Frode Nymo on alto saxophone, trumpeter Arve Henriksen, and an array of voices that includes label familiars Sidsel Endresen and Miki N’Doye, the latter making his second ECM appearance (his first: Balke’s Nonsentration) and here not as percussionist but as poet, reciting texts in the language of the Wolof people of West Africa. As one of ECM’s most up close and personal records (there’s hardly any reverb to speak of), Statements unfolds nakedly, transcending the heavy touch of technology in favor of the freer language of acoustic drums. Indeed, language flows through this project like blood, whether through actual or implied speech.

N’Doye is a defining presence early on in the program, which opens with the spliced diction of “Haomanna.” Seemingly engaged in one-sided antiphony, he inhales savanna and exhales urban networks, barely stitching the lines of keyboard and saxophone trading places at the periphery. Nymo’s parasitic reed work locates further hosts throughout, threading needles through the geographical mash-up of “Altiett” and careening freely across the open skies of “Whistleblower.”

Despite its organic charge, Statements occasionally dresses itself in the peculiar fashion of postproduction. The mélange of instruments and distorted speech that is “En vuelo” reveals wires for veins. “Doublespeak” refracts likewise. Less Orwellian nightmare than Aristotelian breakdown, its word choice flirts with impropriety. Another example in this regard is “Pregoneras del bosque,” a bazaar of the mind whose fruit is weighed by the emotion. Electronic beats and croaks share the air with live murmurings of hand on drum. The final triptych, however, forms the pièce de resistance. In “Pajaro” toddling echoes of childhood linger against a din of buzz saws and insects. All of this encrypts the data entry point of “Karagong,” an archival glitch that reveals its skeleton in “Unknown.” Here uncertainty is the norm, a world through which denizens go on teetering for another hit of oxygen. This is the new ecology, a scrape of survival, anointed by fear.

Statements again proves Balke to be one of the most consistently surprising and uncompromising artists in ECM’s stable. Those seeking points of comparison to this particular disc may find them in “Betong,” for which the closest analogue would be the proliferations of the late Bryn Jones (1961-1999), a.k.a. Muslimgauze, bonded as it is by a likeminded politics and disdain for injurious media, spoken through the drum. In both is a misunderstood flag that flaps only when the wind of our attention shifts its way.

Jon Balke/Amina Alaoui: SIWAN (ECM 2042)



Amina Alaoui vocal
Jon Hassell trumpet, electronics
Kheir Eddine M’Kachiche violin
Jon Balke keyboards, conductor
Helge Andreas Norbakken percussion
Pedram Khavar Zamini zarb
Bjarte Eike leader
Recorded September 2007 and March 2008 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineers: Jan Erik Kongshaug and Peer Espen Ursfjord
Mixed September 2008 by Manfred Eicher, Jon Balke, Amina Alaoui, and Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Jon Balke

“Siwan” connotes equilibrium. This album of the same name achieves equilibrium through many meetings and intersections: of Norwegian pianist Jon Balke and Moroccan singer Amina Alaoui (in her first ECM appearance), of Baroque and Andalusian musical idioms, of Sufi poetry and Christian mysticism, of dark ages and burning inquisitions. For this studio recording of resolutely live music, Balke doubles as keyboardist and conductor for a veritably intergalactic ensemble that includes Algerian violinist Kheir Eddine M’Kachiche, American trumpeter Jon Hassell, and Norwegian violinist Bjarte Eike’s period group Barokksolistene.

Like Alaoui’s seminal Arco Iris, this project is not a fusion of traditions. It is, rather, a deepening of common ground between them. A work of stunning originality, blending geographies into a single airborne continent, its ecosystem runs on ether. Like the solo violin buoyed by strings in the program’s introductory “Tuchia,” the whole flexes and ornaments itself organically. In that violin is a heartbreaking softness that conforms itself to all manner of densities in what follows. After such a fecund inauguration, it is no wonder that the first proper song, “O Andalusin,” should extol the natural wonders of Al-Andalus. Elegiacally described by poet Ibrahim Ibn Khafaja (1058-1139) as “the Eden of the chosen,” the paradisiacal wonders of its landscape shine forth. Harpsichord claws burrow into ocean floor even as Alaoui unfurls sails, hang-gliders, and other disembodied wings to catch every possible current. From burrowing to dislocation, traveler Abu Abdallah Al-Homai’di (1029-1095) yearns for that “faraway homeland” in his poem “Jadwa.” A filigree of percussion and lute illuminates the night as would gold leaf a sacred manuscript, audible tethers each between body and home. Alaoui’s voice wanders but holds its resolve so tightly to bosom that it slips into the ribcage, where it swings on a perch of belonging. She is positively flute-like in wordless moments, touching off M’Kachiche’s elliptical storytelling against a tense ostinato.

The words of Al-Mu’tamid Ibn Abbad (1040-1095), poet-king of Seville, strangely echo the deposition that would incarcerate him for the last five years of his life. “Ya Safwati” is a romantic verse, a profession of utter surrender to that universal captor known as love. This song fronts Jon Hassell’s signature vocality and falls like a curtain to reveal a bevy of percussion carrying Alaoui like a Sherpa across mountains of history. “Itimad” names the wife of Al-Mu’tamid Ibn Abbad, to whom he slipped this poem through the bars of the neighboring cell. “I am untamable yet you dominate me,” he professes, again echoing the power of emotion to conquer in soul what can never be conquered in flesh. Alaoui moves like a bow and finds herself accompanied by that very object, animated and free, across a burial ground of song. Troubador Martín Codax (13/14th century) is similarly lovestruck in his “Ondas do mar de Vigo,” only here the poet embodies a proto-female who laments the consignment of her loved ones to the Sea of Vigo, whose waves took many in the crusades.

Lope de Vega (1562-1635), a star poet of the Spanish golden age, delights with the phonetic play of “A la dina dana.” Here Alaoui parts the clouds by way of golden, celebratory light, setting up the instrumental contrasts of “Zahori” (featuring lyrical recorder playing in place of text), flowing with all the threat of a poisonous serpent, minus the fangs. The lute’s cross-cultural pedigree comes through most readily and beckons the singing of “Ashiyin Raïqin.” Penned by Abu Abdallah Ibn Ghalib Al-Rusafi (d. 1177), who in her liner notes Alaoui describes as a hedonistic writer, this painterly song indeed strips pleasure of its sin. “How lucky we are to find this spot for our sojourn / with doves cooing for our greater delight”: a sentiment within a sentiment, planted in a garden of mirrors.

Persian-born Sufi mystic Husayn Mansur Al-Hallaj (857-922), who suffered martyrdom on the cross for his profession of godliness and who was a beacon of inspiration for Rumi, outlines the manifold path to what Alaoui calls “a ceaseless transformation through vital alternation.” It is a state of fluctuating being in which the contemplation of silence, if not the silence of contemplation, gives way to discovery. A “stripping bare,” as the poet phrases it, an instinct without a door.

“Thulâthiyat” features Alaoui in narrative mode. She lays her speech on the sands like dry bones of an augury for the here and now. Caring neither for past nor for future, she drinks them for the illusions they are and expels them along with the sweat of the midday heat. Sunlit, too, is the verse-chain “Toda ciencia trascendiendo” (Rising beyond all science) of San Juan de la Cruz (1542-1591). This concluding piece is, in Alaoui’s estimation, one of the finest examples of Christian mysticism. Even without knowledge of text and translation, the present arrangement would have us know its secrets. Here there is a door, forged not of wood-flesh but of heart-mind, an analysis of slumber illuminated from within that records its footsteps for posterity before they are buried by wind and dust.

Alaoui’s melodic settings of these lyrics are so intuitive, it’s as if the notes preceded the words. In combination with the astonishing forces gathered around her, every turning of the tongue unspools a thread into the soul.

One of ECM’s finest releases. Ever.

(To hear samples of Siwan, click here.)

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.