Friday, November 5, 2010

Album Review: Ken Nordine - Colors

Ken Nordine: Colors
[Asphodel 1967, 1995]


The year was 1966. Ken Nordine, the widely recognized baritone voice behind dozens of commercials and movie trailers of the time and the originator of “word jazz,” which involves spoken word narration over cool jazz, was approached by advertising agent Bob Pritikin. Pritikin wanted Nordine to narrate radio commercials for the Fuller Paint Company that would focus on the colors of the spectrum, giving them distinct and absurd personality traits. Nordine agreed, and in the studio recorded ten commercials of the rich make-believe world of colors, complemented by the almost improvisational smooth jazz of the project’s band, led by Dick Campbell.

The result? Fascinated radio listeners called into the stations asking to hear the “colors” again, perhaps unaware that they were commercials. Spurred on by the success of the commercials and Nordine’s own enjoyment with the project, he decided to expand the idea of colors in word jazz into a full album, recording narrations for secondary colors and removing references to the Fuller Paint Company. With the addition of 10 bonus tracks left off of the original album, 1995’s rerelease of Colors covers 34 colors, ranging from lavender to orange to mauve, all in about 1 1/2 minutes each.

While Ken Nordine denied that he was a “beatnik,” his surreal narratives, social commentaries, and prominence in the poetry-and-jazz movement at the height of the beat era make his recordings, especially Colors, sound very much entrenched in the subculture. Knowing this background is helpful in understanding what you’re getting into in listening to Colors: mystery, bizarreness, intellectualism, and a large helping of pretentiousness.

Colors finds “Olive” being named “color of the year,” “Azure” feeling “bored with just being blue,” and “Crimson” described as “sick in the red!” One of the best and most well known tracks is “Yellow,” a mystical story of yellow being added to the spectrum. “Yellow” famously begins with “In the beginning… oh, long before that…” Nordine’s brief illustrations of the colors, whether they be short stories or wild sketches of personality, are often funny, frequently puzzling, and always artsy. His rich, expressive voice certainly breathes life into the colors, showing that perhaps no other voice could pull of this daring project. Supporting the endeavor, the jazz band assembled for the album does a solid job of providing clear moods and well-fitting tones for Nordine’s color interpretations. But regardless of the quality and necessity of the band’s performances, they take a backseat to Nordine’s suave poetry; this is Nordine’s work, and his words are always prominent and at the center of attention.

However, even when broken down into small portions of the color spectrum, the idea can be grating with over 30 colors covered, and many listeners will find the obtuseness and intentional elitism of Nordine immediately annoying. An example of this intellectualism is on the back cover of the album, which features a scientific-styled slide of some blue and black figure with the description “obviously the infratension is too facile and this has sorely affected the darkest force just behind the left kneecap.” Its meaning is entirely lost on me, and I can imagine that it’s understanding can only be faked by those of Nordine’s highly educated, artistic persuasion. But I feel that Nordine was very aware of his often-snobby approach to artsy poetry; he was aware of its pretentiousness, but his intentions were always, at their core, lighthearted and in the name of fun.

While Colors may not have a lasting enjoyment for many listeners beyond being a “colorful” remnant of the ‘60s beat era and an important album in “word jazz”, it is an amusing oddity. Music lovers looking for a unique, high art experience may find some special pleasure with Colors, but don’t be surprised if you get some strange looks from your friends. In fact, they should be expected.


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