Ken Nordine - Colors

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For four generations now, the voice of Ken Nordine has been a subtle thread in the American fabric. As many can tell Coltrane in two notes, so with Nordine in a word. . . . . .

His series of Word Jazz albums make for an essential section of any hipster's record collection, occupying an honored space next to the works of Lenny Bruce, Lord Buckley, and Del Close and John Brent. And in many ways, Nordine's work has aged better than his contemporaries'. While their spirit and energy are to be marveled at, Nordine has the edge as a speaker, writer and conceptualist.

"I was going to be a concert violinist", he explains, "until I learned that working with my voice was a much easier way to do it. I think the thing that happened to me is that I like writing, and I like writing for speaking. It's a different kind of writing. A good line is like a stone that's been smoothed by water running over it. In other words, if it's not on the beat, if it's not in the pocket, you'll know right away. It's like a line in a good jazz solo."

As well as recording, Nordine put his voice to work in broadcasting. In addition to commercials and voice-over work, he found his way onto television. Predictably enough, his program was not usual. "Years ago, when there was just black and white, I read Rats in The Wall by H.P Lovecraft, and all these horror stories scared the hell outta kids. And you know what it was used for -- the young people at home were watching this thing in the dark, boys and girls. This was where the testosterone and the estrogen could get together. It's a good excuse. I probably was causing all kinds of dysfunctional family life."

As worlds collide, some merge. This is how Colors actually was born into the world of advertising. "It's very interesting. I was thinking about that earlier. A fellow by the name of Bob Pritkin, a very strange and talented man, worked at an advertising agency, called me up and wanted me to do the Fuller Paint commercials. The assignment was to take nine colors, and then one would be all colors -- spectrum. From that I wrote the ten commercials, starting with 'The Fuller Paint Company invites you to stare with your ears at yellow', and then we would do yellow, or blue or green. What I did was I wrote this out, and then I got a group of musicians together to depict -- free form -- as we were recording it. For example, 'The Fuller Paint Company invites you to stare with your ears at yellow': 'In the beginning' (whatever the musicians thought 'in the beginning' sounded like) 'or long before that' -- and it would continue as light was deciding who was going to be in or out of the spectrum -- 'yellow was in serious trouble'. Well, that was one. We also did another one which was a yellow canary, or a yellow lemon drop, or y'ello, can you hear me? -- a lot of light-hearted things. At any rate, I wrote the ten commercials and was very pleased. They were only on the air for thirteen weeks, and then they went off. People would call up and say, 'Hey -- play that again', and they couldn't, because they were commercials. And so, they caused quite a stir. They won an International Broadcast Award, which was wonderful, you know -- something to dust. Very strange to win this big award, and that was the end of it. I thought, 'God, how ephemeral. That was so much fun, doing that, and now it isn't going to be heard anymore'. So I added about thirteen more colors -- we did forty-four, all told -- and I went back to Universal Recording in Chicago, and did the whole series of the colors, taking out the name of the Fuller Paint Company and just doing the colors as you hear them on the record. Yellow is different, but the rest are pretty much the same as they were."

Nordine also had a strong say in the preparation of the music behind his words. "I told the musicians what I wanted, and that's what I do all the time on the records that I make. It can be 'Let's get a groove going -- this tempo', or, for instance, fat -- 'Let's do something that's very lugubrious' -- that type of thing. For Azure we wanted something very light that would be like clouds, and that's got a very sky-blue kind of blues to the thing. It was very free in that regard. Nobody knew what we were going to do until we did it. It was not scored in that sense." For the extended series of Colors, Nordine enlisted, as music director, one of the musicians he used on many of the commercials, Dick Campbell. "Campbell is an amazing musician. Amazing."

The music had a large hand in the personalities Nordine had determined for each color, based on what he saw as the connotations placed on the various hues. "Yellow has all sorts of literary implications, for instance. T.S. Eliot uses 'the yellow fog' as a kind of sinister thing that Prufrock was blown away by. In the house there were all these women who were the negation of Prufrock. A lot of artists have used it in that regard. Green of course is used as envy. Amber -- that was just a take-off on that it's between red and green. It gave me a chance to really play around with the either/or situation, something like in The History of Ideas. It's either go or stop -- in between is just this… other part."

It is his commitment to mining that "other part" that keeps Nordine (and his work) so fresh and vital to every new generation of listeners. Maybe it is overdoing it to call Ken Nordine "a ray of sunshine". He is more like a persistent flashlight that goes on when you're about to head into some dark, far corner -- when you most need it to shine.

-- Skip Heller

Skip Heller writes for many publications, is curator of Dionysus Records' Lost Episodes reissue series, and is the author of Clarinet Connotations: The Musical Life of Mickey Katz. He lives in Philadelphia.

Catalog Number: ASP 0954
Release Date: January 1, 1995

Track Listing

  1. Olive (1:33)
  2. Lavender (1:32)
  3. Burgundy (1:31)
  4. Yellow (1:35)
  5. Green (1:34)
  6. Beige (1:34)
  7. Maroon (1:39)
  8. Ecru (1:40)
  9. Chartreuse (1:33)
  10. Turquoise (1:34)
  11. White (1:41)
  12. Flesh (1:33)
  13. Azure (1:35)
  14. Puce (1:34)
  15. Magenta (1:34)
  16. Orange (1:29)
  17. Purple (1:35)
  18. Muddy (1:35)
  19. Russet (1:39)
  20. Amber (1:37)
  21. Blue (1:38)
  22. Black (1:39)
  23. Gold (1:34)
  24. Crimson (1:34)
  25. Brown (1:35)
  26. Rosey (1:36)
  27. Hazel (1:37)
  28. Mauve (1:34)
  29. Fuschia (1:33)
  30. Sepia (1:34)
  31. Nutria (1:33)
  32. Cerise (1:36)
  33. Grey (1:40)
  34. Coral (1:28)