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Siwan by Jon Balke / Amina Alaoui

Jazz and musics indigenous to other lands once known as "ethnic" sounds, more recently as "world music" or if it’s danceable/grooveable, "world beat" have long been chummy, influencing and/or inspiring each other for several decades. Django Reinhardt, Dizzy Gillespie, Machito, Yusef Lateef, Paul Winter, David Amram, Gary Burton and Astor Piazzolla, Wadada Leo Smith and many, many more. One of the more illustrious examples of this find of fusion is Jon Balke’s ambitious and beautiful disc Siwan. While the "jazz" aspect of this set may seem illusive, it takes from jazz a vital aspect namely, to undertake myriad sounds and to make them a unique, individual "thing" of one’s own...the way Django did with Gypsy/Roma strains, the way John Lewis did with Bach and bebop.

For Siwan, Norway’s Balke (keyboards/conductor) draws upon the rich tradition of Arabic and Arabian-Andalusian music and related texts circa 857- 1591. While based in the sounds of North Africa and the Middle East, the palette is enriched by Jon Hassell’s Indian-influenced muted/treated trumpet’s wail - which sounds much like a human voice - and the sonorous, subterranean rumbling percussion evoking Bill Laswell’s dub voyages to the bottom of the sub-sonic sea. There’s a shade/shadow of fusion the original jazz-rock epoch that swept Europe and America in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, a methodology of taking this-and-that from assorted sources and "personalizing" them in the most natural way. As in, the way American fusion was funkier than its European cousin, the way the Europeans found their own national voice/tinge. (Note the electric jazz-rock fusion styles of Larry Coryell and Terje Rypdal were kindred yet very distinctive.... but I digress.)

Throughout, there is a delicate collage of rhythms that’s (curiously) a natural as "human rhythms," namely, heartbeat and breathing. The voice of French-Moroccan singer Amina Alaoui is a coolly regal alto, vaguely reminiscent (in gentle expressiveness and evenness of tone) of Sandy Denny (Fairport Convention, Fotheringay) and Jacqui McShee (Pentangle). [And call it a personal taste, but Alaoui never overindulges in melisma.] The track "A La Dina Dana" is so exquisite - the strands of "folk" and "classical" (i.e., baroque, Renaissance) of the Spanish peninsula and the land(s) of the Celts (not just the British Isles but the part of France known as Brittany) intertwine gracefully and melodiously, like it’s no big deal. In fact, one of the chief selling points of Siwan is Balke and company never (not overtly, anyway) bend over backwards in efforts to "dazzle" the listener with technique or the juxtapositions of style/genre . It’s as if this set is a musical snapshot of a historical period (in North Africa and southernmost Europe) wherein aspects of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim cultures intersected and intermingled (before being so rudely interrupted by Inquisition and assorted jihads). Siwan is impressive in scope, but more importantly, Balke synthesizes splendor to splendor from inestimable sources with quiet dignity and subtle inventiveness. Beautiful stuff...worth seven stars, this is.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Jon Balke / Amina Alaoui
  • CD Title: Siwan
  • Genre: World Music
  • Year Released: 2009
  • Record Label: ECM
  • Rating: Five Stars
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