Jon Balke, "Siwan"
Rarely during the course of a listening year does a recording strike such emotional depth as the Norwegian keyboardist / conductor Jon Balke's latest ECM outing, the cross-cultural masterpiece "SIWAN." With a large cast of improvising jazz artists (including trumpeter Jon Hassell), a 12-piece baroque ensemble with strings and harpsichord, percussionists (including drummer Pedram Khavar Zamini on the Persian zarb) and captivating Moroccan vocalist Amina Alaoui singing ancient texts, Balke creates a dramatic, passionate soundscape infused with Nordic introspection, Andalusian mysticism and Arabic hues. The songs hark back to early music, yet, with their blend of disparate styles, sound remarkably fresh: The pensive "Itimad" is highlighted by Hassell's musing, and the bright, upbeat dance "A La Dina Dana" is spirited by the Algerian violinist Kheir Eddine M'Kachiche's jig-like lines. While Balke's lyrical music is largely rendered with a hushed, otherworldly feel, the percussionists provide the subtle gravitational pulse, such as on the poetic "Thulathiyat."