Live Reviews: ECM Autumn Cycle – Jon Balke's Magnetic North Orchestra

Whelan’s, Dublin, 17 November 2005The appearance of Jon Balke’s Magnetic North Orchestra at Whelan’s on 17 November was one of the last in a year-long series of concerts presented by the Improvised Music Company and the Jazz Architects and...

Whelan’s, Dublin, 17 November 2005

The appearance of Jon Balke’s Magnetic North Orchestra at Whelan’s on 17 November was one of the last in a year-long series of concerts presented by the Improvised Music Company and the Jazz Architects and featuring artists linked to the ECM label. Where jazz is concerned, the ECM label has developed a strong identity over the years – elegant design, music that is recognisably contemporary but tends more towards the refined than the startling, and a recording process that can mysteriously induce strong and diverse artistic voices to sound like projections of the voice of ECM.

Not having heard Jon Balke’s recordings, I went to the concert in Whelan’s expecting coherence, style and professionalism, but hoping for a little more. Having lost their percussion but not their percussionists in Portugal, having mislaid their cellist but borrowed some percussion, this was a seven-man band. There was nothing lost or disoriented about the performance, however. Balke led and benignly oversaw the action from the piano.

The first hour or so of the concert unfolded without a break. There were clearly demarcated phases that suggested separate compositions but the transitions were subtle and intriguing in their own right. In the faster sections, the piano tended to throw out motifs and rhythmic patterns, but there was plenty of space for individual players to express themselves and there was no stylistic straight-jacketing. Phases in which the players built intricate patterns over a rhythmic ground or quietened for delicate textural exploration were far more common than those in which we might have been listening to atmospheric film music.

This was a genuinely collective endeavour, with the players relishing each other’s performances and supporting each other rather than competing for attention. The total communication between the two violins (Barte Eike, Peter Spissky) in quite complex pattern-making was extremely impressive. Likewise, the two percussionists complemented each other very nicely, Helge Nordbakken tending to work steady patterns while Ingar Zach tended towards a freer and more textural approach.

Fredrik Lundin’s saxophone-playing was finely shaped both at the level of the individual note and as a contribution to overall structure. If Per Jorgensen showed similar qualities on the trumpet, his wordless singing was remarkable for the balance achieved between vocal technique of the highest order and intense expressiveness more suggestive of the Mediterranean than of the Arctic.

The members of the Magnetic North Orchestra appeared happy with the evening’s music-making. They will also have been pleased with the attentive response they drew from an equally happy audience.

Published on 1 January 2006

Barra Ó Séaghdha is a writer on cultural politics, literature and music.

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