As time goes on, the ECM label continues to stretch the meaning of the word jazz, allowing it to encompass almost any kind of music that allows for improvisation or sounds like it does.
With Book Of Velocities, pianist/composer/band leader Jon Balke connects with various worlds: of the piano as a physical entity that can produce sound in many different ways; of the creative process as it feeds back on itself through time; of effecting control over abstract musical elements, thus creating meaning; and communicating intellectually and emotionally. The album's intense effect is in how these worlds interact.
The title refers to Balke's statement, "Piano playing is in fact mainly about velocity." He further elaborates, ultimately defining the enigma of the piano. The mechanical action connects the key to the hammer. The force applied to the key, (i.e. the velocity with which it is struck), determines how fast the hammer hits the string and hence how loud the sounded note is. How then can different players sound different, even when playing a single note? What is this magical thing called touch?
While Balke does play the piano normally much of the time, he does so many other things, sometimes simultaneously, as to create a cloud space within which the regular notes are heard. Since no overdubs or electronic processing were used, there are times ("Giada") when how he achieved these sounds is a mystery.
However, Book Of Velocities is much more than just tricks, since every sound is used towards a musical end. The pieces are grouped into chapters, which represent the development of an idea, with connections between the pieces ranging from direct to obscure. A clear example of a musically used effect is on Chapter III's "Sunday Shapes." Balke, as he does elsewhere, muffles the string that is played, presumably with his hand. However, the particular point chosen on the string produces a natural harmonic that sounds like a bell, hence the connection to Sunday.
Melody, harmony and rhythm are rarely presented together clearly. Instead, they come to the fore individually (or paired), as Balke works out his ideas in real time. While the music is easily called abstract, there can be no denying the logic underlying each piece's development, which, when combined with the beauty of the sounds, creates a strong emotional response. Echoes of Chopin and Debussy can be heard, but for the most part the music stands on its own.
The nineteen pieces last, on average, three minutes, which adds a sense of compression and concentration. Balke does not allow himself to drift and, with nothing extra, encourages deep and intense participation.
With each successive listen to Book Of Velocities, the stronger its pull becomes. While it might seem to ask much of the listener, the experience of giving complete attention to Balke's musical world is rewarding beyond words.
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