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Jon Balke / Batagraf: Statements

John Kelman By

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Even the most distinctive artists, who have honed voices that distinguish them from their peers, typically have some identifiable precedents. Norwegian pianist Jon Balke's earlier works with Oslo 13 and the Magnetic North Orchestra all bear obscured antecedents that can be found by digging deep enough. Recent albums like Diverted Travels (ECM, 2004) seem to operate in a separate universe, however, leaving behind the shackles of convention and creating a new aesthetic where Balke demands as much of the listener as he does his ensemble.

Balke's latest project, Batagraf, advances his ongoing progression towards greater abstraction and percussion-centric music. His septet features four percussionists—in addition to his own occasional percussion work—and he incorporates broad multicultural concerns in new and unusual ways. Rather than presenting clearly delineated solos from Balke, saxophonist Frode Nymo and trumpeter Arve Henriksen, the music on Statements finds form and freedom cohabitating seamlessly in a collage-like suite of unorthodox song structure that incorporates vocals whose rhythmic articulation is as important—if not more so—than the words themselves.

Much of the vocals are in languages other than English, with the exception of Norwegian singer Sidsel Endresen's recitations on the appropriately-named "Doublespeak" and the more cryptic "Karagong." But the album seems to be all about making the statements referred to in its title. Miki N'Doye recites in the Senegalese Wolof language, while elsewhere an unknown announcer is buried beneath obfuscated melodies. "Befong" uses equally odd vocalizations as the focus over chordal washes from Balke, which provide some harmonic foundation for the vivid percussion section.

Balke is no stranger to electronic manipulation. Despite the percussion section's footing in real-time performance, Balke's keyboards and the various vocals are often processed, making this an electronica-influenced effort with some roots in Saturation (Jazzland, 1998). While Nymo's primary instrumental voice and Henriksen's less-used shakuhachi-like tone make pieces like the more assertive "Attiet" veer closer to a conventional jazz aesthetic, more often it's Balke's keyboards that create the nearest thing to a familiar frame of reference.

Balke's increasingly astute understanding of how to create rhythm-based music allows this many percussionists to coexist without any kind of clutter, and their interplay, while often clearly orchestrated, also feels spontaneous and alive. The closing "Unknown" feels more like contemporary electronic chamber music, as opposed to the insistent pulse of "Betong" and "En Vuelo," where Balke's keyboards approach funk and the African polyrhythms of the percussionists create a tenuous comfort zone for the listener.

With each successive release, Balke's conception continues to evolve to a place where the only thing that's predictable is its unpredictability. Statements may not be the easiest listen, but when absorbed as a continuous 55-minute experience, it succeeds in drawing the listener into a continuum that has little by way of reference points, making it all the more uncanny for its remarkable appeal.

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