While I may love jazz when it’s dark and moody, and find that it gets darker and moodier when you have fewer people playing it at the same time, solo piano collections have ironically never really grabbed me. But by adding some sound effects here are there, sometimes to great effect, Jon Balke’s Warp (CD, digital) has, for the most part, caught my attention. It didn’t keep it the whole time, but it certainly caught it.
Recorded in September of 2014, Jon Balke’s Warp features him on piano and “sound images,” which mostly seem to be small, sometimes almost unnoticeable sound effects. On most of the tracks, Balke plays his piano slowly and carefully, which he does rather well. But there’s always something else going on. The song “On And On,” for instance, adds an atmospheric tone in the background that makes the track sound like something they’d use in a sci-fi movie to indicate that the hero has landed on a mysterious but welcoming alien planet, while “Heliolatry (Variation),” which ends the album, has a similar spacey vibe about its background keyboard tones.
When done well, this mix of solo piano and sound effects can be rather evocative, and actually reminds me of the film scores that nine inch nails’ mastermind Trent Reznor and his composing partner Atticus Ross have done for the movies The Social Network, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and Gone Girl. One of the best of these moments is “Amarinthine,” which sounds like Balke is playing alone in a really large and open room while a lone cellist slowly rubs their bow against the strings.
It isn’t until the mid-way point of Warp, with the song “Shibboleth,” that Jon Balke even alters the formula, as this track has a bunch of a-melodic percussive sounds accompanying some playful piano that make this sound like something from the soundtrack of the original Planet Of The Apes movie.
Oh, and no, despite what I just wrote, or said earlier, or because of the album’s title, Warp doesn’t all sound like the soundtrack to a ’70s sci-fi movie. In fact, most of the time, these sound effects are far less noticeable. On the song “Bolide,” for instance, there’s a low and constant tone in the background, which makes it sound as if Balke recorded the song in a room with some machine quietly humming nearby. Later, the song “Mute” has Balke’s piano is accompanied by some imperceptible murmuring.
Sometimes, however, Jon Balke’s “sound images” backfire on him. The song “Telesthesia” has the kind of cracks and pops that made me stop listening to albums on vinyl, while “Kantor” sounds like Balke is playing his normal slow piano while, in another part of the room, someone is singing a completely different song.
And then there’s the song “Heliolatry,” which opens Warp. When listening to it for the first time, I heard what sounded like odd scratching sounds. And I don’t mean scratching in the hip-hop way, but in the squirrel or other small animal way. But I wasn’t sure what it was, since it was so far behind Balke’s piano playing, so I paused the music to see where they were coming from, only to realize they were part of the song.
In the end, Warp has some interesting moments, and some interesting ideas. But, ultimately, I can’t help but wish Jon Balke had done more with it.