There aren’t many twelve year olds that switch from classical music to the blues. That’s apart from the Norwegian pianist Jon Balke. He grew up learning to play classical piano. However, by the time he was twelve, Jon Balke was ready to turn his back on Bach and Beethoven.
The year was 1967, and psychedelia was at the peak of its popularity. In Europe and America, psychedelia a generation of musicians wanted to follow in the footsteps of The Beatles, The Byrds and Jimi Hendrix. Not Jon Balke. Instead, he wanted to follow in footsteps of Roosevelt Skyes, Pete Johnston and Amon Milburn and play the blues. As adults smiled knowingly, little did they know that this was the start of a lifelong musical adventure for Jon Balke.
Since then, Jon Balke’s life has revolved around music. He made his professional debut in 1973, when he joined Arild Andersen’s quartet. For the eighteen year old was the start of his jazz apprenticeship.
Jon Balke made his recording debut on the Arild Andersen Quartet’s 1975 album Clouds In The Sky.Soon, he was being asked to play on other people’s albums. This included Karin Krog and Archie Shepp’s 1977 collaboration Hi-Fly. Then in 1978, Jon featured on two albums Lars Klevstrand and Guttorm Guttormsen Kvintett’s Høysang, and Kråbøl and E’olén’s Club 7 jubileumsplate. It seemed there musicians were always looking for a talented and versatile musician, who was quite capable of switching between musical genres.
In 1979, Jon Balke’s phone kept ringing. He featured on E’Olen eponymous album. However, later in 1979, Jon Balke collaborated with Radka Toneff on the album It Dont Come Easy. This was Jon’s first collaboration, but certainly wouldn’t be the last.
By 1983, Jon Balke was a member of two bands. He was a member of Oslo 13, who released their eponymous debut album in 1983. So did Masqualero, which featured Arild Andersen. Masqualero was something of a supergroup. Its members were talented musicians and composers. Especially Jon Balke, whose star was in the ascendancy.
Jon Balke was well on his way to becoming one of the leading Norwegian jazz composers. Combined with his talent as a musician, it was no surprise that in 1984, Jon Balke won a Buddyprisen. This was the first, but wouldn’t be the last award he would win.
Since 1984, Jon Balke released three further albums with Oslo 13, and one with Masqualero. Jon Balke also played on countless albums by other artists, and founded three different groups.
The first band Jon Balke founded was JøKleBa in 1990. Their debut album On and On was released in 1991. Since then, they’ve released four further albums between 1993 and 2005. By then, Jon had founded the band he’s best known for, the Magnetic North Orchestra.
Jon Balke founded the Magnetic North Orchestra in 1992. They released their debut album Further, in 1992. Another trio of studio albums would be released by the Magnetic North Orchestra between 1999 and 2004. A year later, Jon formed his third band, Batagraf.
Having formed Batagraf in 2005, Jon Balke’s new group released its debut album album Further in 2005. It was released to critical acclaim. However, it was another six years before Batagraf returned with Say And Play. During the six years between Further and Say and Play, Jon Balke had been busy.
Despite all the things Jon Balke had achieved by 1988, he still had one thing to do, release a solo album. So in 1988, he released Saturation. Despite being well received by critics, a decade would pass before Jon Balke released his sophomore album.
When Jon Balke released Rotor in 1998, Jon Balke had won another prestigious award. He had been crowned Jazz Musician of the year in 1993. Soon, though, more awards would come Jon Balke’s way.
Jon Balke’s next award came in 2000, when he won an Edward Prize for the Magnetic North Orchestra’s 1999 sophomore album Solarized. Then three years later, Jon Balke was awarded the Oslo Bys kulturstipen in 2003. By then, his thoughts had turned to his next solo album.
Four years later, Jon Balke returned with Book Of Velocities in 2003. This was a very different solo album. On Book Of Velocities, Jon Balke eschewed overdubbing, editing and processing. He wanted the listener to hear what was essentially a live performance. It didn’t matter if the album wasn’t sonically or musically perfect. Overdubbing and editing could rob an album of its spontaneity and very soul. Jon Balke was determined this wouldn’t happen.
Book Of Velocities was well received by critics, and was hailed as one of Jon Balke most natural and honest albums. However, Jon would surpass this next time round. Before that, another award came his way.
This time, Jon Balke had won a Gammleng-prisen in 2008, in the jazz category. Buoyed by this sucess, Jon Balke began work on what many critics regarded as his finest solo album, Siwan.
Just a year later, Jon Balke returned with Siwan in 2009. It was a truly enchanting album, and one that was hailed as groundbreaking and full subtleties, secrets and surprises. Siwan received plaudit and praise upon its release. Jon was continuing to push musical boundaries. This wasn’t surprising.
After all, Jon Balke was by then, one of the most innovative Norwegian musicians of his generation. Having released one of his finest solo albums, the followup to Siwan was much anticipated. However, seven years would pass before Jon Balke returned with Warp, his much anticipated fifth solo album which was recently released on ECM.
It’s not surprising that Jon Balke hasn’t released a solo album since 2009. Jon Balke’s certainly been kept busy. He’s released two albums with JøKleBa and an album with Batagraf. Jon has also guested on Mathias Eick’s 2007 album The Door. Then in 2010, he collaborated Hans Ulrik, Benjamin Koppe, Palle Danielsson and Alex Riel on The Adventures Of A Polar Expedition. Two years later, Jon Balke was named artist in residence at the 2012 Molde International Jazz Festival. All these projects have kept Jon Balke busy, and meant his solo career was on hold. That was until September 2014.
At last, Jon Balke found some time to record what would become his fifth album Warp. September 2014 was when Jon Balke would record the sixteen soundscapes he had composed. These soundscapes wouldn’t just feature Jon Balke on piano.
Instead, when Jon Balke arrived at Rainbow Studios, Oslo, he came bearing field recordings. These would be added to the sixteen soundscapes that would become Warp. Another addition would be a trio of vocalists who would augment the piano. For the recording of Warp, vocalists Mattis Myrland and Wenche Losnegaard had been chosen especially. So had the person that would make a reading on Warp, Ellinor Myskja Balke. Warp it seemed, was to some extent, a family affair.
When work began on Warp, it was just Jon Balke on piano. For most of the time, it was just Jon and engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug, and co-producer Manfred Eicher. He co-produced the album with Jon. Once the piano pieces were recorded, other parts were added. By the end of September 2014, Warp was complete. Surely it was just a matter of mixing and mastering the album, and a release would follow in late 2014 or early 2015?
That wasn’t to be. Instead, a year went post before Warp was mixed during September 2015. This took place at RSI Studio, Lugano. The final thing left to do, was master Warp. Mastering took place at MSM Studio, Munich. Now Warp was surely nearing completion?
Warp features sixteen soundscapes lasting fifty-three minutes. Throughout Warp, the word constantly minimalistic and cinematic spring to mind. Especially in Heliolatry, which is also atmospheric and to a degree, eerie and dramatic. That’s down to Jon Balke’s field recordings. They’re crucial to the cinematic sound, and result in a soundscape that’s akin to music for films that are yet to be made. Fittingly, Heliolatry gives way to This Is The Movie. It meanders beautifully along, its soothing cinematic sound cleansing even the weariest of souls.
Wistful and melancholy describes Bucolic, where Jon even leaves room for the listener to ruminate, as a beautiful soundscape washes over the listener. So does On and On, whose analog beauty caresses the senses. At the heart of the soundscape’s success are Jon’s slow impassioned piano and an angelic, soaring vocal and myriad of crackles that are reminiscent of worn vinyl.
After the briefest burst of drama, thoughtful, ponderous and spacious describes Bolide. Again, the music is minimalist and cinematic, as it paints pictures in the mind’s eye. Dark, dramatic and moody, the cinematic sound continues on Amarinthine. Especially when Jon plays big, bold chords that conjure up images of sadness and heartbreak.
Shibboleth is best described as jazz meets avant-garde. Jon deploys a myriad of Faustian alternative percussion, which provides a counterpoint to his piano, which sometimes, heads in the direction of free jazz. Although very different to what’s gone before, it’s a truly innovative soundtrack from a musical adventurer. The same can be said of Mute, which sounds like a homage to Kluster and their first two groundbreaking Krautrock albums. The combination of dialogue and piano gives the Kluster-esque sound.
Slow Spin marks another stylistic change.There’s an element of drama as the piano plays, and harmonies provide part of a moody, cinematic backdrop. Boodle continues the cinematic sound. The sound of joyful children playing, accompanies Jon’s almost urgent piano. His fingers flit up and down the keyboard, as he provides part of the script. The listener is left to finish the story.
Worlds like slow and spacious, plus moody and minimalist describes Dragoman. There’s also an element of drama. This comes courtesy of a series of pregnant pauses. They say more than words ever could, and add to a captivating cinematic soundscape from master of suspense Jon Balke.
Very different is Kantor, which is melancholy, dreamy and almost sensual sound. It features just Jon’s piano, a soul-baring, vocal and a few of his array of sound effects. Later, the vocal becomes ethereal and the dreamy soundscape envelops and caresses the listener.
Geminate may last less than a minute, but it’s aptly titled. With its minimalist, spacious arrangement, it allows the listener to reflect and ideas to Geminate. Telesthesia is another short track. Again, space is left within the arrangement before Jon decisively and purposely plays. All that accompanies him, are some crackly, bristling effects. They add to what’s an almost haunting, otherworldly soundscape. This almost brings the curtain down on Warp,
That’s apart from two variations of Germinate and Heliolatry. It seems fitting that another version of the track that opened the album, bookends it. The variation of Heliolatry veers between eerie and otherworldly, to futuristic, dark and dramatic. Later, flourishes of piano accompany sci-fi sounds, before the soundscape reaches an ethereal ending. This is a satisfying way to close Warp, Jon Balke’s first album in seven years.
Warp has been a long time coming, but has been well worth the wait. It features a series of carefully sculpted soundscapes. They veer between to beautiful dreamy and ethereal, to dark and dramatic, to moody and broody. Other times, the music is melancholy and wistful. Often, space is left within the arrangements, allowing listeners to reflect. Always though, the music on Warp has a minimalist, cinematic sound.
An alternative title would’ve been Music For Films. However, Brian Eno thought of that forty years ago when he released his ambient classic in 1976. Warp however, has some commonality with Music For Films.
Just like Music For Films, there’s a cinematic sound to Warp. The listener will find themselves inventing scenarios to each of the sixteen soundscapes. It’s almost unavoidable. Especially on tracks where Jon Balke has left space. That’s why I wouldn’t be surprised if many of the soundscapes on Warp were used by filmmakers. However, Warp is also an album that listeners can wallow in.
Over fifty-three minutes, Warp washes over the listener, enveloping and embracing them. Sometimes, it’s lysergic, while other times it soothes their weary soul. Other times, Warp’s slow, spacious and cinematic sound is perfect to reflect and ruminate to. Warp it seems, is all things to everyone.
That’s not surprising. Jon Balke has drawn inspiration from a variety of sources for Warp. Although he’s primarily a jazz musician, he combines elements of ambient, avant-garde, classical, free jazz and Krautrock can be heard. This genre-hopping album is without doubt, the finest album of Jon Balke’s finest solo. Warp is a minimalist cinematic epic, where drama, melancholia and beauty are omnipresent during Jon Balke’s long-awaited comeback album.