Dominik Wania: Lonely Shadows (ECM 2686)

Dominik Wania
Lonely Shadows

Dominik Wania piano
Recorded November 2019, Auditorio Stelio Molo RSI, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Cover: Fidel Sclavo
Produced by Manfred Eicher
Release date: September 18, 2020

After contributing so beautifully to two albums—Unloved and Three Crowns—as part of the Maciej Obara Quartet, pianist Dominik Wania offers this studio recording of solo improvisations. While Wania notes a range of influences drawing from his classical background, including Satie, Weber, Scriabin, Prokofiev, Ravel, and Messiaen, he seems to have taken cues from these composers as emotional rather than technical suggestions. In doing so, he unravels a trajectory that feels fresh yet familiar in the sense of reuniting with a friend one hasn’t seen in decades. Thus, the light step with which the title track opens seeks the future as if it were the past. As the atmosphere builds and more notes enter the scene, a narrative structure suggests itself. And yet, the characters seem not to know each other. They walk by without acknowledgement, meshing in their indifference.

“New Life Experience” is the first among a handful of expository wonders. If this and the sharper attack of “Relativity” feel more jarring, it’s only because they speak of a musician unafraid to examine himself. Each agitation unpacks itself with philosophical rigor. And if “Think Twice” and “AG76” are heard as darker autobiographies, then “Subjective Objectivity” and “Indifferent Attitude” reveal a playful side. The latter is especially virtuosic but uses its acumen to tell more than show.

To my ears, Wania understands that music is nothing if not a reifying force. Despite the ephemeral implications of “Melting Spirit” and “Liquid Fluid” in titles alone, their lyrical charge makes them fully present as entities in their own right. They guide us “Towards The Light” by reminding us of the fleshly struggles of which life itself is composed as we now search for something divine in a world bogged down by cloud of a pandemic. Opening our eyes to a brighter tomorrow, “All What Remains” suspends itself in prayer, the requiting of which will never materialize until we close our mouths and open our ears.

This music is a sentient river acknowledging the obstructions that define its winding trajectory. It would be nothing without impediment, each rock and fallen tree a challenge to redefine itself at every turn. This is precisely what Lonely Shadows can be at its freest moments—a continuity through the traumas we carry inside before the ocean of mortality swallows them whole.

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.