Karin, Hard to Find

karin_forsideIn 1969, most people, even those who were following the progression from jazz to fusion, hadn’t yet heard the work of a British guitar player named John McLaughlin. That was the year that he recorded his first album, “Extrapolation.” At the time, it was wildly experimental, but as I listen to it in the background while writing this article, it’s really delightful, gentle, meditative, not at all explosive. McLaughlin is a gifted guitar player and composer. He shares the stage with an another young British musician, a man who plays the somewhat unusual combination of soprano and baritone sax. His name is John Surman. At the time, Surman was already recording on his own for the Deram label (later famous for Moody Blues LPs). As a guy who tended to read album liner notes, I probably made a mental note about how much I enjoyed Surman’s work, but that’s didn’t amount to much.

Jumping far forward in time, all the way to 1995, I was writing a book for Billboard about the story of jazz, told through about 500 of the best jazz CDs. I worked with every jazz label, and welcomed their suggestions. Some of the most intriguing jazz CDs came from a European label, ECM Records. The music on ECM differed from the work on other labels: it was sophisticated, experimental, as much a soundscape work of art as a record album. One of the most intriguing of the ECM recordings was made by the Nordic Quartet, led by John Surman. I’m listening to the first track, and I can easily understand why it caught and captured my attention. Surman and his electric guitar partner Terje Rypdal had so thoroughly updated the explorations of the “Extrapolation” era. Weaving through the first track, UnknownTraces, there is a deep female voice whose sound more closely resembles an instrument than an upfront vocalist—and she’s singing phrases that feel more like poetry than lyrics. She was not credited as a singer, but instead, as “voice.” Her name is Karin Krog.

By this time, I was very well organized, and my note about finding more Karin Krog music stayed with me for (yikes) nearly twenty years. I liked what I heard, but in time, I forgot where I heard her voice. I’d visit my favorite deep inventory record stores, and nobody had ever heard of her.

Over time, I continued to collect John Surman CDs, and loved most of them. (Note to myself: I need to update my Surman collection because all of the CDs I just fetched from the shelf pre-date 2003), but there was no mention of Karin Krog on any of them.

Krog_4_lresEarlier this year, late at night, I decided to do a Google Search on Karin Krog. Bingo! She released her first single in 1963! (Clearly, I have missed a very good story that spans lots of decades.) We connected, and she was kind enough to send a few CDs. While the package was in transit from Europe, I found an LP called “Some Other Spring” in a used record store, copyright 1970, by Karin Krog and the brilliant Dexter Gordon (with the equally formidable Kenny Drew on keyboards, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pedersen on bass—they were working together in a Copenhagen jazz club). I was impressed by the good company, but I was a initially disappointed because the magical soundscape I had so enjoyed on Nordic Quartet was absent here; then, I listened more carefully, and with more of an open mind, and began to understand her versatility (it was her plaintive version of Jobim’s “How Insensitive” that won me over). As the CDs were making their way to me, I explored the depth and breadth of a discography that includes dozens of albums.

The CDs arrived. I decided to listen in chronological order, so I started with what I now understand to be a work from the mid-1970s (fitting nicely into my story), an album called “Cloud Nine Blue.” Gosh, it’s rich! (The liner notes from the modern re-release mention something about remixing—completely unnecessary!). So here’s the incredible depth of John’s bass clarinet intermingled with lines of synthesizer and the siren qualities of Karin’s voice, accents and filagree from John’s soprano sax, a kind of avant-garde meets religious exaltation on “Eyeless in Movement,” no lyrics, just sonic expression, then a half-spoken, half-sung song from Karin. Gee, this is interesting music, the kind of work that makes a top-quality sound system worth the investment so each of the artists’ ideas are allowed to fully show themselves (listening on a lesser system is fine, but you’re missing half the show).

Karin-Krog-Oslo-CallingJumping to “Oslo Calling,” it’s now 2008. The execution is cleaner, more modern (heck, it’s more than thirty years later!), somewhat more traditional in its jazz arrangements. Karin’s voice has gained luster in the lower ranges, and boundless confidence. When a song is a soundscape, it’s slicker, less experimental, and I miss the freer thinking of the earlier work (but musicians must evolve, and the range of both John and Karin has been remarkable, over so many years). I especially enjoyed “Three Little Words,” a Kalmar-Ruby tune that’s been forgotten by too many performers—her interpretation is sassier than the others I’ve heard.

mr20_smallKarin_5_tbnOf the three CDs, the most interesting is also the most experimental, a cycle of songs originally composed for a 2010 jazz festival. It’s called “Songs About This and That,” and I like it because it recalls my earlier interest in their exuberant experimental side, but places it in a more artful, more carefully arranged setting. There is a sense of open time and space to explore, to allow for long lines, an ease with the maturation of Karin’s voice. On this CD, I think my favorite track may be “Cherry Tree Song” because the poetic lyrics wind so gracefully around John’s baritone sax and bass clarinet, a warm combination of electric guitar, vibraphone, and John’s bass recorder. In fact, I jotted down some other favorite tracks, and found the list was too long to manage, but I will mention the vibe solo that begins “Moonlight Song” and Karin’s waking-up voice, looking backward on memory. Wrapping up an article I’ve so enjoyed writing, I happened to notice that Karin’s credit on this CD is what it was so many years before, not “vocals” but simply, “voice.”

A lifetime of work. So much fun to discover, to listen attentively because there is so much to hear.Thanks, John, thanks, Karin. I want to hear more.

 

 

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Superior Gift: Piano CDs by Corea, Jarrett and Lubimov

Yeah, it took me a while to understand what I was listening to, or two, and why I kept playing a pair of paired discs time and again. (Okay, sorry, I will slow down.)

For much of this past month, I have been listening to passionate, impressionistic performances by several extraordinary piano players (plus one more).

This sequence of listening began when I attended a wonderful performance by Chick Corea and his friend and frequent collaborator, Gary Burton. They’ve been on tour with the Harlem String Quartet, presenting a remarkably consistent, and now quite differentiated, version of late 20th and early 21st century jazz. Corea is a tireless composer, a man filled with ideas, a creative person never satisfied with one course of action. Like Yo-Yo Ma, Bela Fleck (also a Corea collaborator), and others who have been performing for several decades, Corea has one career with Burton, another as part of a jazz trio (with Christian McBridge and Brian Blade), and still another with Bobby McFerrin. The Burton performance was stunning, perfect in its way, endlessly interesting, and sufficiently inspiring to make me want to see Corea in his other formats.

Which leads (at long last!) to the focus of this particular blog post, whose initial conception did not include Corea at all. Instead, it was to focus on Keith Jarrett, whose career has been somewhat more conventional in that he plays fabulous solo concerts–the newest being Rio, which was recorded in Rio de Janeiro–and as part of a trio with Gary Peacock on bass and Jack DeJohnette on percussion. There are probably two dozen Jarrett solo recordings, and every one is similar, but in its way, exhilarating, original, compelling, and consistently inventive. This is probably one of the best of the lot, but there are so many fine examples, it’s difficult to choose (and you certainly won’t go wrong if you purchase any of them). Rather than recommending one or two, I think it’s wiser for me to point you to a page that lists all of them on the wonderful All Music Guide site.

Jarrett and Corea worked together in Miles Davis’s band in 1970–a very long time ago in musical terms. It’s fascinating to listen to those nearly-a-half-century-old recordings, those initial flights into a fresher, freer, easier, less structured form of jazz and to consider the stops along the way, a way that has been so elaborately documented on some many recordings (for the most part, excellent recordings, with only the occasional excursion into dubious territory).

Now I find myself comparing Jarrett’s RIO with something much older, but very much from the same spring. Here, the composer is Claude Debussy. The pianist is Alexei Lubimov, sometimes playing his Bechstein beside another Alexei, in this case, Alexei Zuev, on his Steinway piano. Perhaps it’s the elegance, the presentation, the combination of control and fireworks, the seriousness… or the extraordinary skill that compels me to consider Debussy and Jarrett’s recordings as ideal companions for an extended listening session on a gloriously rainy or snowy afternoon. The latter is not new music–it predates Jarrett by more than a century–but the sense of freedom, the phrasing, the flights of fantasy and ecsstacy on, for example, “La puerta del vino,” sounds more like 21st century jazz to my ears than it sounds like traditional classical music.

At a certain point, writing about music really is like dancing about architecture, so I’ll stop here and not embarrass myself with a flurry of comments about Debussy’s individual preludes and how nicely they’re carried off by Lubimov on Preludes.

As the music begins to fade, and friends are pulling up to the house after a long drive (they’ll be hungry), allow me to simply recommend a pair of very good piano recordings, each a pair in itself (each is a 2-CD set), perhaps the ideal gift for just about anybody willing to take the time to really listen. Both packages are excellent.

Let me end with a note to myself: I need to learn a lot more about Alexei Lubimov, and spend time listening to his past work. He’s a new name for me, and after of month of listening to him play the piano, I am beginning to understand the many internet claims… he may be one of our contemporary keyboard musicians. I suspect Lubimov deserves a proper article of his own. Getting to work right now…

My 500-Year-Old CD

Day by day, there’s not much that we encounter from the year 1611. Shakespeare was busy writing The Tempest. Henry Hudson died. Marco de Dominis published a scientific explanation of rainbows. A year later, tobacco was first planted in Virginia, and the Dutch started using Manhattan Island as a trading center.

In 1611, Carlo Gesualdo wrote some of the most uplifting music for voices in the history of the medium, a book of madrigals. This creative work did not come easily. Count Gesualdo of Venoso’s story involves his instigation of the gang murder of his own wildly unfaithful wife (he plunged the sword into her body, and not just once, shouting, repeatedly, “she’s not dead yet!”), then moves through remarkable bouts with depression and abuse, including the dozen men to beat him daily (I’ll spare you details, but you can find them here and in lots of places on the internet). As crazy stories of composers lives go, he’s the hands-down winner. His story is deeply disturbing. His music is miraculous. Witness his captivating Tenebrae, one of the classic items from the formidable ECM catalog, first released in 1991, and consistently astonishing, a record I return to on a regular basis, a record that I recommend with little hesitation to any serious listener. And now, for 2012, witness the same Hilliard Ensemble treating five hundred year old music as if it was contemporary art. The newer disc is called Quinto Libre di Madrigali, and it is fascinating. The title and notes explain: this is the fifth of six books of madrigals, this one created late in the composer’s life. From the liner notes: “The whole collection constitutes a gallery of dramatically lit portraits of human emotions with a heavy emphasis on the extremes of joy and despair.”

There are six voices: a soprano, a pair of countertenors, a pair of tenors, and a baritone. (Soprano Monika Mauch and second countertenor David Gould frequently sing with the four-man Hilliard Ensemble; on this recording, Mauch is stunning.) All six singers sound like angels, and if you close your eyes, it’s easy to imagine these voices climbing up a heavenly spire in search of their lord. They sing in unison, they sing in pairs, they sing in harmony, they sing alone. They climb. They intertwine. They rest and they bounce. They exchange leads almost as if they contain the souls of jazz musicians to come. In musical terms, Gesualdo’s music is often described as “deeply chromatic”–a madman coloring with the brightest possible pigments and an extraordinary level of precision, probably based upon some sort of serious mental illness that caused his creative light to burn just a little too brightly. Two years after he composed these madrigals, he was dead.

Gesualdo’s work is not background music. It is music that captures the imagination, and elevates the spirit in a primal, deeply human way. There are no musical instruments, only voices, and open space.

This is not the best choice of music to play through computer speakers. ECM sets high standards for each of its recording projects, and this one, in particular, demonstrates the care that must be taken in order to record a wide range of vocal performances. The precision, the soaring thrusts, the extraordinary quiet passages, the contemplative quality of the whole, all of this has been meticulously prepared for your enjoyment. Listening through inferior equipment is like trying to contemplate the Mona Lisa by looking at a postage stamp. Best to listen through quality headphones, or on a good stereo system. The CD sounds a whole lot better than a computer file with reduced clarity and range. Trust me on this one: buy the CD, and allow yourself the time and space to listen with your whole being.

The Hilliard Ensemble, plus two additional vocalists. If you’re intrigued, be sure to explore the ensemble’s work with composer Arvo Pärt as well.

Jack DeJohnette: One of The Best


Jack DeJohnette is one of those extraordinary jazz musicians whose career is largely unknown to those who do not follow jazz. Too bad. (Let’s do what we can to remedy the situation.)

Background: He came up through Chicago’s avant-garde scene, working as part of the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians); played with John Coltrane’s quintet in 1966; then worked with a young Keith Jarrett in Charles Lloyd’s group; then made some history as a drummer on Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew sessions (and on eight other albums from the early 1970s); soon, his circle included John McLaughlin, Chick Corea and Dave Holland. In fact, for 25 years, he has been a part of a trio with Keith Jarrett on piano, and Gary Peacock on bass–their series of Standards albums are extraordinary (watch them here). The complete list of DeJohnette albums and collaborations is a long one; fortunately, Wikipedia maintains a good list. As both a leader and a co-conspirator, DeJohnette’s portfolio includes so many albums, so much excellent work, that it may be difficult to know where to begin.

For starters, I’d suggest a 1984 CD called Album Album because it offers both an avant-garde sensibility and easy access for anyone willing to take the time to listen. The interplay between saxophones–the formidable David Murray on tenor,  the lesser known John Purcell on alto and soprano, and a young Howard Johnson on tuba and baritone sax–is consistently inventive, with a relentless flow of interesting ideas, varied textures, and explorations of old ideas made new. DeJohnette is the controlling influence, ever present, often leading the way. Plus, there’s this sense of style, short bursts in lavish settings, that provide the basis for an album released in 2009–that’s 25 years later–called Music We Are.

For DeJohnette, the melodica is an old friend: he played melodica on his first significant solo album, excerpted here on YouTube. On the 2009 release, the melodica provides a winning c

ombination of tango sensibility, bits of remaining avant-garde (sounding more mainstream here, perhaps due to the passage of time), and the kind of atmospheric soundscape that was central to Weather Report’s earliest work. The creative collaboration here is with pianist Danilo Perez, who explains, in the album’s liner notes, that he has been playing with DeJohnette since 1992, and that his first encounter with the famous drummer was listening to DeJohnette playing “some beautiful piano.” John Patitucci plays electric and upright bass. They work together beautifully. That is to say: this is a very special album, one that pulls together so many different jazz styles, so successfully, that it defies categorization. It swings, it makes you think, it makes you dance, it does a whole lot of stuff really well.

In fact, they explain how it all comes together on a 25-minute DVD that comes, free, with the Music We Are CD. This is a solid documentary, explaining the creative process from composition and performance through recording and editing. After watching it, you will wonder why every CD doesn’t include an accompanying “how we did it” DVD.

Hey, I was going to write about the newest DeJohnette CD, Sound Travels, but this article is probably long enough. I will write about Sound Travels soon, I promise.

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