Ken Nordine: "Father of Word Jazz"

TapeOp #15 Winter 2000

Somehow, somewhere, somewhen, someone shared with me the sonic sensibilities of Nordine, Ken. I was delighted with his word play (or were the words playing with him?), his deep clear voice (an accidental hypnotist?), and the fresh and exciting music that slid, skittered, and strode in and around his sung-spoken thoughts. Nordine began his career as a radio announcer and commercial voiceover artist in the 40s. In the 50s, he started recording his own material. He released "Word Jazz," "Son of Word Jazz," "Next!" and "Volume II." The success of these recordings earned him a cult status that's still strong today. Throughout the 60s and 70s, he continued doing voice work (several hundred of them a year!) and adding to his personal catalog. In the 80s, among many other projects, he created over 300 30-minute programs for National Public Radio. Currently, Nordine hosts a weekly radio program, still does commercials, creates visual and sound art, and kindly obliges interviewers who call him up to ask him what he's doing.

I've been playing around with a special phone that I have so that I can make funny phone calls.

How does that work?

I've a lot of phone interviews done, and I'm going to mix them with music. I'll call a friend of mine who wants to play the game and who has the sense of humor to do it, and I'll ask him for, maybe, a brain transplant or something. He'll be Dr. Curtis, for example, and I'll say, "Hey Doc, do you have any unwashed brains?"

(laugh) Are you planing on releasing these?

I never think ahead that far. If it comes off the way I conceive it, I'll slip it into one of my radio shows. But to get back to what you're primarily interested in, what can I tell you that would be helpful?

Well, one of the things I was curious about was how you go about creating your recordings.

With the orchestrated music, I write to the music, generally. With the free form jazz, I write to the phrasing of the music. I'll say, "There's room here for something." That's one way. The other way is using live music in the studio, with the musicians listening to what I'm doing and I listening to what they're doing, and it becomes a kind of empathic situation. So, if I'm doing something, as I was the other day, about the arachnid family, I'll say to the musician, "You can be the web, and you can play the attitude of the spider waiting for some food to come by. So each musician brings to the fantasy whatever they feel is appropriate. Or, in another way, I'll say, "Hey let's get a good groove going." And then I'll do something that fits with that groove metrically. Because I work with metrics pretty much. For example, the spider thing I was working on is a 6/5 rhythm. So I knew that would work with some of the things the percussionist was doing. He did a wonderful thing that sounded like the light coming off of the web. I'd say, "It's a good year for spiders," and he'd go, "tchi-tchi-tchi" ... "Or so it seems. Incessantly weaving such gossamer schemes." ... "ur-ah-ur" "It should make one wonder what blueprint within instinctively causes the spider to spin." ... "phew-shew-phew." That sort of thing. It's really an empathic relationship between the musicians' hearing and my hearing, so there's room for them and there's room for what I do. One of the beautiful things about jazz music is that when it really works each of the players allows room for the others. So there's not a competitive "Hey, I can step on top of what you're doing" thing. Those are the groups that don't last.

It seems that there's a natural soloist quality to being a vocalist, though?

Yeah, but even at that, some soloists don't leave room. They figure they have to be singing all the time. The best, of course, is when everyone is listening and there's a relaxed togetherness. That's what I strive for.

Do you work as the main producer at these sessions?


Have you ever worked as just a producer and not as a musical participant or composer?

No, I've always worked on things that I'm really involved in. I've done other things where other people were involved. But the thing that's closest to my heart is doing something where there's a kind of a rapport with each other. There's nobody saying, "Hey, faster, or slower, or louder, or softer." Or, you have to change the feel of the message to fit someone's preconceived idea of what the audience is going to react to. That happens more in the commercial world. When you walk into that world you recognize that immediately.

Are you doing many commercials these days?

I do some. Not as many I used to do. I guess I just don't try as hard anymore.

Someone told me that you have a home studio where you do some of that recording?

Yes, I do. That's where I am as we speak. I have all the things that you need and more. I did some recording here with Tom Waits, and a lot of other people, too.

I heard a recording you did with him that was a sort of Hollywood banter about trying to get a film going. I think it was on a David Grisman CD.

(chuckles) Yeah, some of that was also performed live in San Francisco at a place called Bimbos. I went out there and did a concert. I also did a concert the same way last year in London at the Royal Festival Hall with Laurie Anderson, Brian Eno and others. I flew two musicians over with me—Howard Levy and Kristan [one of Nordine's sons]—and we picked up two people in London. There was no rehearsal. I just said, "This is what we're going to do." It's pretty hard to rehearse when you have no charts!

(laugh) So, when you're in the studio, do you serve as the engineer as well?

Oh no! My son does the engineering for me.

Is that Kristan?

Yes. We have a 24-track with Dolby sound, a Harrison board, ProTools and all the goodies that you need to manipulate sound. The studio is on the third floor of an old, old house built in 1902.

Wow! That sounds nice!

Oh, it's a beautiful place. It's got quarter-sawed mahogany paneling, big windows. It's a little bit of yesterday in a neighborhood that doesn't know what the hell is happening—which is all right.

Are you right in Chicago?

Right in Chicago, smack dab in the middle of its heart. In fact they've even put an honorary name on the street. That made my wife very happy. "Ken Nordine Lane—Honorary," it says.

That's great! Do you find yourself getting into the ProTools type of manipulation more and more as the technology advances?

It still has to end up being something that's worth listening to. You can circumvent a lot of things, but you can't circumvent content. You can use technique to create all sorts of strangeness. There's nothing wrong with that if you need it. Of course, that's all subjective.

Yeah, I think it's interesting to come back to something after several years and just be surprised by it from the new perspective.

Yeah ... in fact, I've been working on these things called "Maybe the Moment," which is an attempt to resurrect moments of time. The idea of "seizing the moment," you know, to see how you were. But actually, the moment is like a bird in your hand that flies off in a blur. It's that type of realization that time is probably just dimly remembered. I don't know where that part of the brain is? Do you? There's a little section there somewhere where all these things are stored in a strange way. Of course, if you've had any experience with Alzheimers, you'd see what a sad thing it is when cognition slips away. "I'll never forget What's-His-Name." They really fall apart. Well, part of life, I guess, is falling apart. There was a great sculptor, that nobody thought was great because of his subject matter. He made sculptures that would fall apart. They were strange Rube Goldberg-type things. And what would happen, right before your very eyes, over a period of, say, a month, the sculpture, because of the eccentricity of its motion, would fall apart. I guess what happened was that they [the art dealers] were trying to sell the damn things. But it was disconcerting to them because by the time they found somebody who was interested in the thing, it had fallen apart. (laughs)

I guess they needed some time-release sculpture then.

Yeah (laughs). Do you paint or anything like that?

Yes I do. I'm also a graphic artist.

Oh, I love to play with PhotoShop! It's a wonderful way to manipulate images. Now there's a case where I have fun manipulating. You can do things to screw up an image that can make it very interesting.

Do you paint as well?

I goof around. I'm mostly in the computer now. I used to do a lot of painting. I did some rectangular Easter eggs. I put ink in my kids' wading pool and dropped canvases in there and sold them for $150 a piece! They looked rather nice come to think of it. That's a Japanese technique that they've been using for centuries. Most of the things we think of have been done, one way or another, at least unconsciously.

Yeah, but you never seem to find that out until you come up with it yourself.

That's true. I do a lot of fooling around with the [PhotoShop] filter Warp. Are you familiar with Warp?


I've done some things for the magazine Outré. They do a quarterly that can be a low-rent-Romeo type of a thing. Each issue they print one of my "Maybe the Moment" pieces with an illustration that I've done. I had an exhibit of this type of thing with Jerry Garcia in Chicago years ago.

It seems like you work similarly in each of your mediums.

Everything we do is a gross abbreviation of what's really happening.

I was wondering how involved you are in the sound design aspects of your work?

Quite a bit, actually. In fact, I'm working on a part for a new CD where Tick is talking to Tock inside of a clock. So we created a tick-tock fugue by slowing those sounds down. That's an old technique that started out with musique concrète.* You can do it so much better now because you don't lose quality digitally. With analog tape, you used to wind up with all kinds of surface noise.

And your editing was destructive.

Also, Ampex [now Quantegy], God love their little souls, years ago, they came out with a tape that developed traction. So we have some tapes that we did archivally that scrape off and catch on the heads when you play them now. It becomes like glue. It's a drag. To get rid of it, you have to warm them up in a convection oven. But even then, you can only play them once. So it's, "Sorry, that's all. You can't play it anymore."

Well, it's similar to the sculptures you were talking about.

(laughs) Exactly. You hate to think about that sort of thing. Of course, that's sort of what happens to language. How many people speak "Beowulf"**? Not many. Sanskrit is on the way out, too.

It's popular in the yoga community!

(laughs) I think you're right there.

* Musique concrète is music created from recorded sounds rather than notation.

** An Anglican poem written in Old English, circa 700 A.D.