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, vocalist Amina Alaoui, for 2009's Siwan, which focused deeply on Andalusian culture and the attempt at its eradication during the Inquisition. It won the album of the year prize among the German Record Critics ("Jahrespreis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik"). A year later, he held the piano chair on Lars Möller's 2010 date Trialogue on Imogena (the group also included Morten Lund).
Balke 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 series of compositions for solo piano, vocalists, subtle electronic soundscapes, and field recordings. In January of the following year, Balke revised the Siwan band around 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 kemence and goblet tumbak 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 co-exist 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, St John of the Cross, poet-playwright Lope de Vega, and more. The album was issued by ECM in November. ~ Matt Collar