BBC Review

Composer Jon Balke with the second ECM album from the Magnetic North Orchestra.

Peter Marsh 2002

Jon Balke is probably best known for his association with bassist Arild Andersen, but his CV includes works for trombone and electronics, string quartet and a recent all electronic record on Bugge Wesseltoft's Jazzland label. This is his second ECM recording with the Magnetic North Orchestra, a septet of two trumpets, saxophone, cello, bass and drums, plus the leader's piano and keyboards.

Though Balke is a fine improviser, Kyanos is very much a composers record. Throughout, the leader deploys the forces at his disposal with precision and economy; often the compositions are defined by what's implied as much as played. Restraint is the watchword here.

Like Ellington, Balke writes for his players, not the instrument. Trumpeter du jour Arve Henriksen's breath effects are written into the opening "Phanai" as a rhythmic motif, and bassist Anders Jormin's extraordinary technique is given full reign as it spiders through the delicate balladry of "Zygotos" and "Mutatio".Jormin's dialogue with Balke on the ticking, hypertense (almost) funk of "Ganglion" is a joy. Balke's careful, walking on eggshells piano etches graceful, poised lines or occasionally, prepared piano abstractions. "Plica" adds a discreet haze of minimal electronics, while "Nano" offers the pianist's most extrovert moment in a free duet with drummer Audun Kleive.

Much of the writing echoes Gil Evans' 70's work; trumpeters Henriksen and Per Jorgensen carry much of the arcing melodic lines in close harmony. Jorgensen (an influence on Henriksen) is in luminous form on the stately "Katabolic", while Henriksen's distinctive parched expressionism gets an airing on "Phanai".

Saxophonist/flautist Morten Halle and cellist Svante Henryson are harder to spot, though Henrysen (whose previous day jobs included bassist with Swedish metal guitar God Yngwie Malmsteen!) is featured in a short abstract duet with Jormin on the closing "Apsis".

Balke's compositional gifts are considerable and the MNO are extraordinary players. Occasionally I was left hoping that Balke would unleash some of their firepower, but that's not really the point of the exercise. Maybe next recording...In the meantime, Kyanos plays out its tensions and releases beautifully; essential listening for the ECM devotee.

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