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Jon Balke: Diverted Travels

John Kelman By

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As Jon Balke moves further and further away from his '80s work with the Miles-informed group Masqualero, he moves deeper into abstraction, experimenting with instrumental combinations that allow for a broad range of textures within an ever-expanding concept. Since the mid-'90s, with his constantly shifting Magnetic North Orchestra, he has explored the juncture between composition and improvisation in a way that assimilates an increasing number of world music influences, yet never seems to sound directly like any of them. Diverted Travels , his latest project with a radically reworked Magnetic North Orchestra, may be his most obscure release yet; it may also be his most successful.

Following '02's Kyanos , which utilized a more conventional lineup of horns, cello, keyboards, bass and drums, Diverted Travels aims for more esoteric territory with trumpet, flute and saxophone, two violins, bass violin, keyboards and two percussionists. Balke's goal has been to create a new musical experience that draws on a wide range of influences while avoiding the dreaded fusion word that taints so many other like-minded projects. Instead, his approach is to create a new aural landscape that incorporates the essence of these styles without being overt or obvious. Sure, there are elements of the Middle East in "Machinery," but with the more intimate violin section blending in Balke's probing piano work, direct definition becomes impossible. Trumpeter/vocalist Per Jorgensen's plaintive singing on "Columns" also has precedence in things Middle and Far East, but the long tones of the string section place it in more of a new music context.

And what of the jazz tradition? Balke's piano playing comes, to some extent, from the free approach of Paul Bley, while Jorgensen's trumpet has some direct lineage to Don Cherry, but Balke's abstruse compositions place them in a more challenging context, where free improvisation and strict structure blend seamlessly. Less about theme development followed by improvisation, and more about finding ways to make the two cohabitate concurrently, Balke's concept is advanced, yet at times deceptively simplistic. The short "Deep" finds Jorgensen developing a theme while saxophonist Fredrik Lundin improvises and percussionists Helge Andreas Norbakken and Ingar Zach provide a backdrop that is more textural than rhythmic.

The music on Diverted Travels is, overall, more pulsating, more clearly rhythmic than that on Kyanos. "In Patches" is a driving piece where forward motion is generated as much by the string section as by the percussionists. Still, space is also a crucial ingredient. "Sink," "Downslope" and "Falling" are as much about what is not played as what is.

Diverted Travels takes Balke's growing concept of blending modern chamber music with a more exploratory improvisational edge as far as it's ever been. His is a specific musical vision that has gradually been expanding since he began pursuing his own projects in the early '90s. Challenging, evocative and compelling, Diverted Travels is unquestionably only the current culmination of a concept that will continue to evolve in years to come.

Visit Jon Balke on the web.

Track Listing: Machinery; Nutating; Sink; Columns; Deep; In Patches; Ondular; Downslope; Rivers; Climb; Inside; And On; The Drive; Falling

Personnel: Per Jorgensen: trumpet, vocals; Fredrik Lundin: bass flute, tenor and soprano saxophones; Bjarte Eike: violin; Peter Spissky: violin; Thomas Pitt: bass violin; Jon Balke: piano and keyboards; Helge Andreas Norbakken: percussion; Ingar Zach: percussion.

Title: Diverted Travels | Year Released: 2004 | Record Label: ECM Records

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