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Ken Nordine: Word Jazz: A Transparent Mask

A confession: As an inveterate music store scavenger, I’ve noticed Rhino’s Ken Nordine compilation, Best of Word Jazz, a hundred, perhaps even a thousand, times. Thanks, however, to my visual dyslexia (a peculiar, though often times useful, malady that allows you to see only what you want to see), I’ve always misread the title as Best of World Jazz and, assuming it to be an offbeat collection of international esoterica, moved on. In other words, I come to Nordine’s latest outing as a word-jazz neophyte.

To anyone who grew up within earshot of a radio or TV set, Nordine’s sonorous baritone is, of course, mighty familiar. As a pitchman, the Chicago-based broadcaster has spent the past half century helping to boost sales of everything from coffee to blue jeans. His is an irresistible voice, drawing you in like a hypnotist’s rhythmic drone. According to fan Web sites-and there are many-his experimentation with word jazz began in 1957 and has since been embraced by artists as diverse as Fred Astaire and Jerry Garcia. On his current album, A Transparent Mask, recorded in the attic studio of his Chicago home, Nordine explores topics as wide-ranging as insects, numbers, dreams, love and loss.

Through it all, it’s impossible not to be reminded of the once fashionable beat poets. To my admittedly untrained ears, it’s like Kerouac set to an Esquivel beat. Word jazz is clearly an acquired taste, and I can’t help but feel that I’ve been invited for drinks while everybody else is staying for dinner. Still, even I can appreciate the free-form finesse of various Nordine riffs. “Hole In the Ego” is, for instance, a delightful deflation of pretentious pricks, and “You Were So Crazy” cleverly suggests that we’ve all circled Ken Kesey’s cuckoo’s nest a time or two. A Transparent Mask won’t transform me into a rabid Nordine disciple, but has taught me that there’s more to my local jazz department than I’ve been willing to notice.

Originally Published