Oregon Music News: Oregon’s all-genre music magazine since 2009

Benjamin Moussay
Benjamin Moussay
Jon Balke
Jon Balke

New solo piano albums by Jon Balke and Benjamin Moussay / Review

By BILL ROYSTON // ECM has released two new solo piano albums, one by Norway's Jon Balke and Banjamin Moussay from France...both worthwhile.

By any standard, Keith Jarrett. Absolutely. Earlier, Bud Powell, Art Tatum, and, of course, T Monk. Always, with McCoy or Herbie. More recently, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Ketil Bjornstad, and Brad Mehldau. Regionally, I would cross the boulevard for either or both of the Fabulous Grant Brothers (Tom & Darrell), Gordon Lee, or Ezra Weiss. Today, there are Nik Bartsch, Aaron Parks, Ethan Iverson, and Fabian Almazan.

The jazz piano solo is a major challenge even for a master. Even for a serious listener. Inevitably, the mind tends to wander during an extended solo set to the faceless, Billy Joel piano man/lounge lizard tinkling standards at the Holiday Inn (when Holiday Inns had lounges!). Or, to what you had for dinner last Thursday, or...

It's curious that this attention deficit afflicts solo piano both in concert and on recordings. I've sat in awe at solo guitar concerts (Michael Hedges), solo bass recordings (Dave Holland), and solo saxophone in a cathedral (Phaorah Sanders). My thoughts never drifted. It's like solo piano is crying out for its bass and drums, or whatever, in order to keep your attention.

In May, ECM Records has released two new solo piano albums that, while completely different, demand and keep you attentive. Note that both recordings incorporate over a dozen separate tracks in order to keep the span of concentration to brief spurts. This goes back to Jarrett when he developed back problems while playing hour long improvisations. In both cases, the shorter vignettes are most effective and enhance the performances.

Jon Balke is a stalwart of the Norwegian jazz and new music scene. He is the leader of the adventurous North Magnetic Orchestra featuring many of Balke's avant-garde compositions. He was also the founder and keyboardist of Batagraf, a highly percussive, improvisational ensemble, as well as Siwan, a world music trio, with trumpeter Jon Hassell. "Discourses" is Balke's third solo release, following "Book of Velocities" and "Warp." It is by far his best. Like the earlier solo albums, "Discourses" is delicately punctuated with electronic Sounds that expand upon the meditative and intuitive offerings. But, the acoustic piano here is more deliberate and the performances appear more confident. "Discourses" is a testimonial to the maturation of a major musical talent, who deserves more (undivided) attention on both sides of the Atlantic.

Relative newcomer, Benjamin Moussay has recently held the piano chair in the famed French quintet led by clarinetist and sax man Louis Sclavis. While maintaining a structure within Sclavis' work, like the highly acclaimed "Silk and Salt," Moussay's solo debut, "Promontoire," allows him to be more free with his often-grand improvisations. "Promontoire" reads like a series of delectable short stories. Modest, but magestic, Moussay's music is steeped in melody and passion. This is a most impressive first take. It is also solo piano that commands serious attention.

Over the past few years, there have been several other prominent solo efforts. Appropriately titled "Solo" (Blue Note), Gonzalo Rubalcaba sheds his rhythm section for the freedom of flaming improvisations interspersed with truly tender moments. Seattle's Aaron Parks makes beautiful solo piano on "Arborescence" (ECM) that proves to be far more introspective than his trio outings. It's hard to find in the States, but Nik Bartsch abandons the Swiss/zen/funk of his ensemble Ronin for startling "Solo Piano" (ECM) that constantly captivates and excites.

Fabian Almazan hasn't yet made a solo piano recording, but I'm sure that he will soon. He is by far the most exciting young jazz pianist in the last ten years. Having cut his chops with Terence Blanchard's various groups, Almazan possesses the percussive, rhythmic drive of McCoy Tyner paired with the sensitive harmonies of Herbie Hancock. His newest trio release, "This Land Abounds with Life" (Biophallia) is excellent, but the real jewels are "Alcanza" (Biophallia) and "Riozhome" (Artist Share) with trio, string quartet, and a vocalist without words. This is real, new music.

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