Jon Balke has risen to attention with his large ensemble albums for ECM. His Magnetic North Orchestra and Oslo 13 bristle with a provocative mix of percussion, punchy brass sections, electronic textures and placid piano interludes. This trio date, with Danish tenor saxophonist Lars Moller and drummer Morten Lund, distills those large ensembles into a stripped down form, while losing none of the intrigue. Recorded in 1999 but not released until 2003, Trialogue
documents the trio’s improvised studio meeting. The two long tracks, clocking in at over twenty minutes apiece, and one shorter one, at eight minutes, flow from winding, all-acoustic exploration and whispered ambience to electro-acoustic duels.
On most of his records, Balke amply uses synthesizers. That symbol of the electronic age has been both boon and bane for musicians. It offers an endless new sound palette, but can be a crutch for real invention, or worse, completely dominate an ensemble. Its smooth, almost plastic tones can sound like an alien presence in more traditional jazz contexts. (Witness the bizarre, but successful David S. Ware quartet album, Corridors & Parallels, where Matthew Shipp creates unsettling sonic environments with which the acoustic musicians interact.) Balke, here and on all his recordings, mines the synth’s electronic colors and possibilities with taste and imagination, and often becomes the catalyst that develops the improvisations.
Balke’s broad, hollow tones, wisps, pulsating beds, and organ effects challenge Moller and Lund to interact in new ways, most apparent on “Chapter Two” and “Three.” The addictive “Two” slithers along as a minimalist rhythm jam. Balke sets the mood with a scratching, dripping beat, a spare bass pulse and tinkling piano fragments. Moller adapts and transforms his sax into a popping, sucking, moaning percussion device, while Lund restrains the drum’s role as rhythmic front man, content with accenting and underlining the groove.
”Three” starts as a sax and synth duet, Moller blowing cascading smears of notes against Balke’s stream of squelches and solar wind swoops. Out of a low-volume thicket of distorted piano and sax squiggles, Lund builds a sludgey groove. Balke soon inserts dub-wise warbling bass, and Moller simmers behind them. Eventually Balke laces in aggressively dissonant blasts, dissolving the fabric of the beat, and paving the way for a dramatic climax.
In places Trialogue feels like a scattered collection of ideas, for the trio roams so freely from episode to episode; such inconsistency is a hallmark of freely improvised music. The focus of “Two” makes it the most successful track, but “One” and “Three” do supply more daring and more surprises.
Moller, Balke and Lund show themselves to be ultra-sensitive improvisers, and they react meaningfully to the electronic presence, generating for their instruments new roles. Improvisation is a two-way street; it can reinforce old habits, but also open new paths. Trialogue marvelously documents how spontaneous interaction pushes players in new directions.
Visit Imogena and Lars Moller on the web.