Jon Balke has been appointed one of Norway's so-called Olympic musicians. In recent months, this honour has brought him and his orchestra, The Magnetic North, to concert halls in the Olympic cities of Atlanta and Tokyo, while this autumn's tour will include Munich and Barcelona. The twelve-man orchestra highlights Jon Balke in his various capacities as composer, band-leader and pianist, three creative forces combined in the same lanky person, who for the last nineteen years has been acquiring an increasingly important position in contemporary Norwegian music.
Balke comes from a musical family and was the type of child who begs for piano lessons. His wish was granted and he learned piano from the age of nine until he was twelve, when adolescent Jon discarded "boring" classical music in favour of boogie-woogie. Afterr flirting with the Beatles and similar phenomena in his early teens, he ended up as a fifteen-year-old in a basement band playing obscure music for cello, bass clarinet, bass guitar and drums. He later became interested in the more accessible forms of jazz and four years later found himself in the company of the aforesaid Arild Andersen, a musician who, along wish Jan Garbarek, Terje Rypdal and Jon Christensen, made a major contribution towards putting Norway on the international jazz scene in the 1970s and 1980s.
In the 70s, Jon Balke played with Norwegian singers Radka Toneff and Karin Krog and was leader or co-leader of several of his own bands. He played in the first Masqualero band, also a Norwegian ECM band with an international following, but left to spend a year studying in Paris. After returning home, he worked with various groups, including the Oslo 13 big band, and in recent years has concentrated on recordings and tours with the improvisation trio Jørgensen-Kleive-Balke and The Magnetic North.
Jon Balke is one of the most productive jazz composers in Norway. His works include the commissions Palmevinsdrankeren (“The Palm-wine Drinkard”, based on Amos Tutuola's book), composed with his brother Erik Balke for the Kongsberg jazz Festival (1984) and Il Cenone, composed for the Vossa jazz Festival in 1992. His way of combining ethnic music from several continents with European classical music and American jazz, has generated some exciting compositions for larger ensembles. He has also composed many pieces for the Masqualero group and singer Sidsel Endresen, and other contemporary music that falls outside the realm of jazz. In 1985 he received the “Buddy” statuette, the highest honour to be awarded by the Norwegian jazz Federation.