Siwan, the title of keyboardist and composer Jon Balke's sixth album for ECM, is derived from a mixed language known as "Aljamiado," spoken during the Spanish Inquisition. Scholars define the word as "equilibrium" or "balance." In a sense, the definition of the title is key to this gorgeous work by Balke. Commissioned by the Oslo Club Cosmopolite in 2006, Balke decided to create a program of composed and improvised music that would cross three cultures and time periods. First he invited Moroccan vocalist Amina Alaoui to perform with his own international group, and enlisted Bjarte Eike's early music group Barokk Solistene as well. This intersection of cultures north and south -- Gharnati music that comes from the Spanish Al-Andalus period (730-1492) of Alaoui's own heritage, the Baroque music played by Eike's orchestra, and the Scandinavian improvised music and jazz played by Balke's group -- intersect not only three periods, but cultures, at the only crossroads where identity can be fused seamlessly: music. Balke's band includes trumpeter Jon Hassell -- a creator of "Fourth World Music" and no stranger to unusual hybrids -- violinist Kheir Eddine Mekachiche, percussionist Helge Norbakken, and zarb player Pedram Khavar Zamini. The music here is of almost indescribable beauty. Alaoui sings the poems of Al-Andalus poets, and is backed by a free-flowing group that combines the Arab violin tradition with the older Muslim Gharnati, the spacious, icy jazz of the far Northern hemisphere, and the classical discipline of the Baroque period, where improvisation intersects seamlessly with composition, where the theatrical and historical meld flawlessly and seem to grow from the same seed. The emotional transference of all the players of the material Balke has composed (and here, conducted) is total and indeed feels like an entirely new genre of music. The listener can discern the individual elements, and experience the blur between them where something else emerges, something wholly Other, but whose shadows and traces have been gleaned from earlier times, as they've gone on to influence this new, eternal present. Check the gorgeous percussion that engages Hassell and Alaoui in "Itimad." Listen to the glorious interaction between the harpsichord, Hassell, and the strings in "Zahori," and feel the layers of time simply peel away. Every track here reveals something unusual, brings something hidden and alien to the fore even as it beguiles the listener with its intimacy of secret histories and knowledge. Siwan is Balke's masterpiece thus far, and will hopefully become as influential as it is groundbreaking.
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AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek