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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?”

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New or recent albums


Theon Cross

The busy rhythms established by the drummer Moses Boyd justify the references on Cross’ Bandcamp page to “modern grime and trap” as surely as the tightly coiled honking of the saxophonists Nubya Garcia and Wayne Francis justify the references to “stretching and re-shaping the boundaries” of jazz. But what’s really doing the stretching and reshaping is Cross’ tuba. Usurping the role normally assigned to the bass, it fattens the music’s bottom with meaningful oompahs and blats. On the skittering “Candace of Meroe,” it beggars description.

Take Cover

Hot 8 Brass Band

One can learn a lot (and have a lot of fun doing so) about the indomitability of spirit that’s unique to New Orleanians from this high-spirited, just-in-time-for-Mardi-Gras EP. Call it the refusal to let tragedy have the final word. Frankly, it’s hard to say which is more audacious: unleashing brass-and-chant versions of three Michael Jackson songs on the eve of Leaving Neverland or exploring the latent marching-band potential of Joy Division’s dirge-pop classic “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”

The Scope

Manu Katché

The dues that Katché paid drumming for other artists yield their biggest dividends to date. Never quite jazz, never quite funk, never quite art-rock or even pop, the songs evince genre fermentation at a remarkably high and enjoyable level of refinement. Not that nothing stands out. There’s the reggae into which “Vice” shifts during its coda. And Alexandre Tassel’s elegant flugelhorn evokes nighttimes of the rich and famous. Whether Katché qualifies as either is beside the point. The dreamy Jonatha Brooke–sung “Let Love Rule” is not.


Steve Reid Featuring the Legendary Master Brotherhood

Recorded and initially released in 1976, five years after the jazz drummer Steve Reid’s release from jail (for conscientiously objecting to the Vietnam War), this five-cut, 31-minute document of Reid’s response to the possibilities latent in On the Corner–era Miles Davis (among other catalysts) still sounds edgily alive. It also sounds spacious, thanks as much to the mix’s stereo separation as to the nimble intensity of the Brotherhood’s playing. Yes, playing. How else to characterize Les Walker’s searing, organ-driven games of hide-and-seek?

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Ken Jacques

Somber portents

The Mask in the Mirror explores a tragic historical romance

Insofar as contemporary drama and Black History Month coincided this year, the films Black KkKlansman and Black Panther sucked much of the air out of the room. 

But a richer, more challenging, and more universal “black history” story can be found in the Sanaa Opera Project’s just-released recording of The Mask in the Mirror (Navona), a three-act opera by the Scottish-born third-stream composer and jazz pianist Richard Thompson.  

Subtitled The Tragic Romance of Paul Laurence Dunbar, the First Black Poet, & Alice Ruth Moore, Thompson’s libretto draws upon excerpts from several of Dunbar’s poems (most notably “Sympathy,” the source of his best-known line, “I know why the caged bird sings”) and the many letters exchanged between Dunbar and Moore during their semi-clandestine, 19th-century courtship and marriage.  

This focus requires Thompson to begin in medias res and therefore to telescope the background against which Dunbar and Moore’s relationship took place: namely, Dunbar’s odds-defying rise to success at a time during which a black poet had a next-to-zero chance of being taken seriously. So some background may be in order. 

Dunbar was not the West’s “first black poet.” The freed slave Phillis Wheatley beat him to that distinction by over a century. But he was the only black author (he also wrote novels, short stories, and the lyrics of two Will Marion Cook productions) with a sizable audience during his time. When he died in 1906 at 33, the Harlem Renaissance was still a dozen years away. 

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