On paper, Norwegian pianist Jon Balke's first solo album reads like challenging stuff: a collection of eighteen short improvisations, grouped into five sub-sections (four "chapters" and an "epilogue"), and concerned as much with the velocities with which the piano's strings can be struckand how they can be struckas with thematic or harmonic development. Something for fellow pianists to marvel at and the general listener to struggle with.
In actuality, Book Of Velocities is an accessible and rewarding album, rich in melody, which requires no formal musical training or special cerebral powers to appreciate. And despite its structure, it is wholly non-episodicthe eighteen miniatures progress organically and coherently, both within their separate sub-sections and over the course of the disc as a whole, to create a close-up micro-galaxy of new and familiar colors and textures.
In addition to playing the keyboard in the conventional manner, Balke explores a rainbow of other sonic devices, sometimes with both hands, more usually while playing the keyboard with his right hand: reaching under the lid and plucking the strings; rubbing the strings; strumming the strings; dampening the strings; doing these things towards the resonant centre of the instrument or at the tinny, metallic end where the strings are fastened to the frame; doing these things expansively, with the full hand or forearm, or with forensic precision, using the fingertips only; playing combinations of notes which create specific top-end harmonics or low-end drones; exploring the particular tonal qualities of the various registers on the keyboard.
Then there are the pedals, two of them, to be applied singly or together, slowly and gently or with rapidity and force.
Practically the only thing Balke doesn't do is use the wooden panels of the piano as drums. Neither does the instrument appear to have been specially prepared. And there isn't a whiff of post-production electronics.
A seriously transportingas in magicalexperience, Book of Velocities was recorded in September, 2006 by producer Manfred Eicher and tonmeister Markus Heiland at Radio Studio DRS in Zurich, Switzerland. It's the sort of immaculately realised niche recording which makes ECM such a valuable part of the jazz ecology.