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Words with jazz

Ken Nordine (Ken Nordine Jr.)


Words with jazz

Ken Nordine spoke to “that muscle in the mind”

Ken Nordine, the possessor of one of the greatest speaking voices ever committed to tape, died in February. He was 98.  

Nordine first went public in the late 1950s and early 1960s with a series of spoken-word recordings for Dot Records. The titles of three of them—Word JazzSon of Word Jazz, and Word Jazz Vol. II—minted the catchphrase with which he would henceforth be identified.

The records capitalized on the beatnik-era fad of reciting or improvising poetry atop small-combo jazz while establishing Nordine as a master of trenchant drollery. One early track in particular, “The Vidiot,” is as relevant now in the age of smartphone addiction as it was in the early days of television.

Nordine later branched out into advertisements and became a voice-over star. But it was his Word Jazz Radio shows, with their memorable tagline “Stare with your ears,” that provided his sonorous voice, his skillfully calibrated delivery, and his surreally inclined imagination with their most hospitable settings.

Initially recorded for Chicago’s National Public Radio affiliate WBEZ and later for NPR itself, the shows’ 30-minute formats gave Nordine the freedom to combine isolated bits into uninterrupted streams of consciousness and otherwise tweak his trademark ’50s formula.  

His most notable innovation was the “underdubbing” of secondary voices. These allowed him to engage in dialogues with himself that sounded like late-night phone conversations between friends whose shared obsessions included numbers, colors, Shakespeare, Blake, A.E. Housman, Edwin Arlington Robinson, and the humorously absurd. Sometimes “they” even broke into song.

This approach ended up informing his albums as well. His final release, 2001’s A Transparent Mask, includes a meditation on the Fibonacci sequence and concludes with a quietly sung performance of an original Nordine love ballad called “What’s There to Do?”

And, his aversion to “vidiots” notwithstanding, he eventually tried his hand at video. For his hourlong film Agenbite of Inwit and the expanded version that he released on DVD as The Eye Is Never Filled, he supplied trippy, computer-generated visuals to what amounted to a kind of Word Jazz Radio’s greatest hits.  

But it’s his voice that will live on. “There should be,” he mused at the outset of his debut LP, “a set of setting-up exercises for the imagination, a way to strengthen that muscle in the mind that lets us dream while we’re awake.”  

Thanks to his vast recorded legacy, there is.

Exploring, stretching, blurring

The Young Americans label has just reintroduced into circulation the works of another audio pioneer, the late British electronics wiz and BBC Radiophonic Workshop founder Daphne Oram.  

Available both digitally and on four clear-vinyl LPs, Oramics compiles 44 tracks Oram recorded in her home studio from 1958 to 1977, tracks that find her exploring, stretching, and blurring the boundaries between solemnity and fun, technology and art. 

Many of the selections clock in at under two minutes and sound like incidental music in search of a science-fiction B movie. Not so the lengthy tracks. “Snow” (7:46) finds Oram tampering with Sandy Nelson’s “Teen Beat” until it sounds like a Residents prototype. “Birds of Parallax” (12:58) unites the urban and the bucolic in a synthetic skein. The harrowing “Dr. Faustus Suite” (9:36) evokes the terrors awaiting those who’ve made deals with the devil.  

In her 1972 book An Individual Note, Oram wondered whether focusing on life’s “essential fundamentals” might enable one to perceive a “different richness.” To the extent that Oramics reflects her attempts at putting this idea to the test, the answer would seem to be yes. —A.O.