Norwegian pianist Jon Balke is an avant-garde-leaning musician with a bent toward mixing various stylistic influences, including contemporary jazz, post-bop, rock, folk, world, and classical.
He released his debut album, On and On, in 1991. A year later he made his ECM debut with Nonsentration. A member of the Magnetic North Orchestra, Balke has also released several albums with the ensemble, including Kaynos in 2002 and Diverted Travels in 2004. In 2009, Balke paired up with a similarly inclined group of musicians — including trumpeter Jon Hassell, violinist Kheir Eddine M'Kachiche, and vocalist Amina Alaoui — for Siwan, which focused deeply on Andalusian culture and the attempt at its eradication during the Inquisition. The release won the album of the year prize among the German Record Critics ("Jahrespreis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik"). A year later, Balke held the piano chair on Lars Möller's 2010 date Trialogue on Imogena (the group also included Morten Lund). He assembled his own group, Batagraf, for 2013's Say and Play. The ensemble was fronted by a vocalist and included piano, electronics, and ten percussionists. After touring with this group, Balke took time off to reassess.
When he did emerge, it was with 2016's Warp, a collection of solo piano pieces altered by mixing vocals, field recordings, and live electronics to shift the perception of his compositions. In January of the following year, Balke revised the Siwan band around a new singer and oud player, Algerian-Andalus Mona Boutchebak, and entered a recording studio in Copenhagen. His concept for Siwan this time — which also boasted the bowed-stringed kemençe and goblet tombak drum along with his own keyboards — was to assert the question of how the world may have developed if the three religions (Judaism, Islam, and Christianity) had managed to coexist in the aftermath of what happened in Andalusia. From mass persecution, violence, and cultural destruction, Balke assembled poetry from a range of sources for Boutchebak to sing, including Persian Sufi mystic Attar, Saint John of the Cross, poet/playwright Lope de Vega, and more. The album, titled Nahnou Houm, was issued by ECM in November. He recorded with his percussion group Batagraf on 2018's Delights of Decay for Jazzland featuring Mathias Eick and Trygve Seim.
Balke then worked with producer Manfred Eicher to further develop the methodology they had introduced on Warp four years earlier. Integrated in the resonant sound of Balke's piano music are layered soundscapes of processed material that he described as "distorted reflections and reverberations from the world," with thoughts on political and social language. Comprised of 16 short pieces, he titled the set Discourses; it was issued during the spring of 2020. ~ Matt Collar & Thom Jurek