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“Diverted Travels”, the third ECM album by the pan-Scandinavian Magnetic North Orchestra, extends the radius of the work already documented on “Further” (recorded 1993) and “Kyanos” (recorded 2001) and confirms once again that Jon Balke is one of the most unique writer-arrangers in contemporary jazz. “Diverted Travels” features a radically revised line-up – only the leader and trumpeter Per Jørgensen remain from the original band, but the music, which continues to move in mysterious ways, with ever-arresting harmonic variety and textural differentiation, and a delicate equilibrium between the composed and the free, is unmistakably Balke’s.

His goal when he formed the Magnetic North Orchestra in 1992 was to develop a new music that drew upon the jazz tradition, contemporary composition, and diverse non-Western forms, especially North and West African music, of which Jon Balke has much practical experience. But, from the outset, it was also one of Balke’s self-imposed directives that his writing for the band would most stringently steer clear of any hint of glib crossover or fusion: “The concept is based on avoiding application of elements of these forms, and rather developing a new kind of pulsating chamber music by learning from the inner energy that these forms possess.” Balke’s writing for “Diverted Travels” is indeed chamber music that pulsates.

The first, sprawling edition of Magnetic North combined a large percussion group, a string quartet and a jazz sextet, “to explore the palette of sound and possibilities that this instrumentation could give.” Since then, an eight-piece nucleus has been Balke’s preferred touring model, but the smaller units have retained much of the sound-colour and timbral potential of the original group while operating with increasingly subtlety, as the leader continues to explore “the balance between polyphonic writing and improvisation.”

In July 2001, in Copenhagen, Balke again had an opportunity to direct a very large ensemble: Grand Magnetic, as he called it, augmented Magnetic North with a 14-piece string group. In this context Balke met Bjarte Eike, Peter Spissky and Thomas Pitt who were section leaders within the ensemble: “After that, I started sketching, working out how to integrate the composed playing inside the ongoing improvised playing, and let the two elements feed each other continuously, instead of alternating. I found I wanted to approach the dialectics between the composed and the improvised in a different way.” This realisation led to the disbanding of the existing line-up.

Changes took place in the winter of 2002/3 and the new group was fully fluent with Balke’s concept by the time of its September tour which found Magnetic North racing through nine countries. Of the new repertoire, Balke says, “I’ve been happy to find that I can include quite complex compositions and sort of ‘hide’ them inside the music without losing the flow of dynamic energy that makes spontaneous improvised music so great to play and listen to.”
As Richard Cook, reviewing this group’s performance at the “Music of ECM” festival in Dornbirn, Austria, wrote in Jazz Review: “Balke’s deft interweaving of timbres and sonic contrasts was so absolutely refined that there seemed to be no false step anywhere. Compositions and themes within compositions came and went and left traces on the air like slowly evaporating smoke-trails”.

The intimate, vocal trumpet sound and the freely expressive vocals of Per Jørgensen, whom Balke calls “a magical musician”, are factors that connect this ensemble’s past with its present. Jørgensen, who was also a member of Magnetic North’s forerunner, the “little big band” Oslo 13, has performed extensively with Pierre Doerge, Anders Jormin and Marilyn Mazur as well as with Jack Bruce and Michael Mantler (on Mantler’s ECM album “The School of Understanding”).

Saxophonist Fredrik Lundin has been a powerful force in Danish jazz since the early 1980s and has toured widely with his own groups Overdrive and Sound of Choice (the latter with guitarist Hasse Poulsen, currently a member of Louis Sclavis’s group).

The string players in the group - violinists Bjarte Eike and Peter Spissky, and Thomas Pitt on the cello-like bass violin, are well known in Europe as three quarters of Baroque Fever, one of the pioneering early music chamber groups performing music on historical principles. Early music research is also detective work, which finds its equivalent in the “searching and experimental attitude” (Balke) these musicians bring to Magnetic North.

Bjarte Eike is active as a violinist and concertmaster all over Scandinavia, with ensembles including Concerto Copenhagen and the Norsk Barokkorkester and teaches baroque violin at the Grieg Academy in Bergen. Peter Spissky plays with leading ensembles including Tragicomedia and Teatro Lirico (both directed by Dowland Project lutenist Stephen Stubbs) and teaches at the conservatories of Malmo and Odense. Thomas Pitt is a founder member of the Amsterdam String Quartet and has given numerous performances with distinguished groups including the Academy of Ancient Music and the Garbrieli Consort.

The string players use baroque tunings: “They play tuned down one half-tone. This gives a certain dryness to the sound that appeals to me, and it blends well with the horns and percussion. They have a tradition of phrasing that makes them pick up the way I write more intuitively than a strictly classically-trained player might.”

The two drummers driving this edition of Magnetic North very interestingly combine contrasting percussive philosophies. Helge Norbakken has worked extensively with singers, including a ten-year stint with the Mari Boine Band, five years with Maria Joao, and tours with Irish folk singer Anne Wylie, as well as a rollcall of Norwegian players from Ketil Bjornstad to Arve Henriksen. His characteristic sounds include the earthy tones of talking drums and djembes as well as drum kit.

Ingar Zach on the other hand is a creative innovator who has found acceptance on the European free improvisational scene alongside some of the idiom’s masters, including Derek Bailey, Phil Minton, Philipp Wachsmann, and Barry Guy, and is valued for his energetic, reflex-quick accentuations of the music.

These then are the musicians that Balke has assembled for “Diverted Travels” and for whose individual voices he writes so persuasively. His own distinctive, abstract, angular piano charts a zig-zag path through the ensemble textures.
Jon Balke first recorded for ECM in 1974 as a member of Arild Andersen’s group. In the late 70s he toured widely with West African Afro-jazz group E’olen. In the 80s he was a founder member of the group Masqualero (with Jon Christensen, Arild Andersen, Nils Petter Molvaer and Tore Brunborg), appearing on its ECM début, “Bande à Part”. Leadership of Oslo 13, which at different times pooled most all the contemporary jazz talent of the Norwegian capital, prompted Balke to experiment with new approaches to large group composition and arrangement. Since then he has scored music for numerous stage productions, chamber groups and orchestras and written extensively for jazz ensembles including the Magnetic North Orchestra and the aforementioned Grand Magnetic, which adds the string section of the Stavanger Symphony Orchestra to the Magnetic octet core.

Filmmaker Audun Aagre’s recently completed a documentary film about Magnetic North which will be screened in Scandinavia in September 2004. The group will be on tour in Europe in October and November.

Press reactions to “Kyanos”:

“There’s something about the splintered and spacious voicing of Jon Balke’s opening chord that tells you there’s a mind at work here, and Balke goes on to prove what a sensitive and probing mind that is…This is an engaging and intelligent release by a true composer with an understanding of the demands of improvising soloists.”
Philip Clark, Jazz Review

“An exquisite unravelling of textures against discretely pulsating rhythms. Balke says he writes, Ellington-like, for the specific musical personalities in his group, and the way his textures billow or hang in the air like a dense Nordic fog reflects a close musical understanding of the group. Balke’s writing is rich in inner detail, his orchestral tone clusters never quite what they seem, with unusual combinations of instruments grouping and regrouping then parting to allow a solo voice to be heard. Hypnotic and mesmerising.” –

Stuart Nicholson, Jazzwise

“There is gorgeous use of space and silence here…Sometimes the sound is so quiet it becomes almost like breathing, and there is certainly that life force and primal rhythm throughout. And then there are the moments when suddenly the cool Scandinavia detachment gives way to unabashed romanticism…A real beauty.”
Peter Bacon, Birmingham Post

“Balke draws on influences from jazz, classical and folk music in ‘Kyanos’. It has the spare uncluttered feel that has been central to Nordic jazz in the past couple of decades, but his music has a distinctive flavour and he makes striking use of musical colour, timbre and texture.”
Kenny Mathieson, The Scotsman

“Though Balke is a fine improviser, ‘Kyanos’ is very much a composer’s 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... ‘Kyanos’ plays out its tensions and releases beautifully.”
Peter Marsh, BBC Online