Over the course of three decades Jon Balke has, without any particular muss or fuss, emerged not only as one of Norway's finest pianists in a sphere of jazz of the largest possible definition, but one of its most influential. From his early days with bassist Arild Anderson and drummer Jon Christensen's Masqualero, Balke's writing and playing transcended the group's open-ended take on Miles Davis' mid-1960s free-bop to include musical and cultural markers from farther abroad. Recent albums like the percussion-heavy Statements (ECM, 2006), with his Batagraf group and Diverted Travels (ECM, 2004), a string-filled edition of his longstanding Magnetic North Orchestra, have found Balke exploring everything from the broader potential of voice to electronica-tinged classicism and African polyrhythms.
Book of Velocities is Balke's first solo piano album and, as would be expected of this relentlessly explorative and selfless musician, distances itself from traditional solo performances. There are no standards to be found and, unlike artists like Keith Jarrettwho has admittedly shortened his solo piano improvisations considerably in recent yearsBalke works exclusively in miniature. Only two of these nineteen compositionsin his own words, "either based on an abstract graphic ideaa single or double lineor faint traces of compositions from other musical environments"extend beyond the four-minute mark, two hover around the one-minute mark. There's no pianistic bravado, though occasional glimmers of virtuosity shine through, most notable on "Obsidian," one of Book of Velocities' more extroverted, energetic and boldly dramatic pieces.
But as has always been the case with Balke, it's never been about chops or pyrotechnics; instead, Book of Velocities, with no overdubs or electronic processing, explores the potential of the piano inside and out while reflecting the warm acoustics of Zurich's Radio Studio DRS, where it was recorded in 2006. Every note is heard with complete transparency, Balke's touch ranging from sharply aggressive to so delicate that he seems to be barely whispering on the keys.
Balke's extended techniques also create an ethereal and near-orchestral ambience by resonating the strings inside the piano, independent of the keys, while layering spare themes on the opening "Giada" and equally tranquil closer, "Nefriit," creating a sonic bookend and elliptical narrative. Moments of abstraction appear to define "Spread," but they ultimately give way to a more dark-hued and lyrical neoclassicism.
With all but one track a new composition/improvisation, Balke revisits "Nyl," from Masqualero's Band A Part (ECM, 1986). While both versions share an unconventional but still singing melody and harmonic sophistication, Balke's solo interpretation takes advantage of extended techniques that, while allowing time to be elastic, create an unmistakable forward motion.
Book of Velocities is an album that, with Balke's selfless pursuit of roads less traveled, may not immediately impress. Instead it's a unique and deeply moving work that, with a broader stylistic viewpoint revealing more with each listen, deserves to be an early contender for 2008 "best of" lists.