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Jon Ballantyne: Known/Unknown

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Jon Ballantyne: Known/Unknown Jon Ballantyne is thick. You hear great rumbles of piano, fingers darting to hit distant notes, somehow laid-back and intense at the same time. It’s an edgy sound, similar to some but copying none. It’s hard to describe, but the album title does it as well as anything.

“No Blues” is the title, but Jon’s version barely mentions the theme. His fingers walk up the keyboard, waves of sound march in patterns, and a two-finger twiddle is enhanced by slamming the notes nearby. The snares are busy; the cymbals accent odd moments. The bass is back there, but mostly stays out of the way. When time comes for his solo, Drew Gress does get louder; Ballantyne gets softer, making for a new sound. It might not be Miles Davis, but it is in fact – “No Blues”.

“Known/Unknown” starts soft, and builds when bass and drums pick up the intensity. Ballantyne hits a four-note pattern hard, then he goes on the cascading runs he loves, the drums reacting. The storm builds, nearing Taylor level – and then it calms, quoting a familiar bebop line! “I Can’t Get Started” has the familiar soft bass and smooth brushes – here comes a warm ballad. Well, not exactly: the theme is hinted rather than stated and the harmonies are a little off-center. While Ballantyne is not in Taylor mode, it sounds like Cecil’s version of “Sweet and Lovely”. His solo ends on atmospheric tinkles; Gress now stretches with broad steps, here sliding, there creeping. When Ballantyne steps in, we get our nearest rendition of the theme, and some warmth at the end. Different, and yet familiar.

Sam Rivers’ “Beatrice” gets a straight-ahead treatment: it’s an up-tempo job with nice drive from Ballantyne. His solo explores a little, but mostly it’s hard and propulsive. The grand ending is to be savored, and leads to Ballantyne’s “Old Dreams”, with a similar mood. It’s a ballad which cuddles, then broods; the mood changing with the chords. Gress has another good solo; he shines on the convention tunes. When piano returns, he has company: Gene Jackson with pretty cymbals, sounding like wind chimes. The Ornette Coleman blues “Turnaround” lives up to its name. Ballantyne drawls the sad chords, ruminates while picking up steam, and then Jackson goes double-time. Ballantyne leaps into classic straight-ahead, with rapid fingers, surprisingly lush chords, and back to the slow opening. Someone in the studio says “Yeah!”, and you know why.

“Witchcraft” starts in the slow drifting mode, and starts to take off. The general mood is like the early numbers, but with more muscle – and a stronger sense of direction. A delightful “Giant Steps” gets exotic rhythm, and chords felt more than heard. It’s the same concept as “I Can’t Get Started”, only better executed. Jackson has fun with it, and Jon has his best solo – the ideas flow smooth with undeniable logic. The same can be said for “You Don’t Know What Love Is”: the sour notes and introspection work for a tune like this, more than “I Can’t Get Started”. The reading, a simple riff embellished by cymbals, is starkly beautiful, and a nice way to end.


Title: Known/Unknown | Year Released: 1999 | Record Label: N. Y. Jam


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