By James Calemine
In 1991, Ken Nordine recorded a spoken word album, Devout Catalyst, at the Grateful Dead studio–Club Front–in San Francisco. Nordine began his career in the 1940s by recording radio voice-overs and commercials. Later Nordine hosted a program on NPR as well as various other sonic endeavors. In 1958, Dot Records released Nordine’s first influential “Word Jazz” album. Ken Nordine is a world to be explored…
Jerry Garcia and Tom Waits recorded with Nordine on Devout Catalyst. Garcia, David Grisman, Howard Levy, Jim Kerwin and Joe Craven served as the musicians on this timeless collection. Official Grateful Dead biographer Dennis McNally wrote that Devout Catalyst contained “No-retakes, no touch-ups–voice meets fingers, word meets jazz.” Nordine still exists as one of America’s most influential voices.
In a 1992 interview, Jerry Garcia said this about Nordine’s influence: “You gotta go back to 17-year-old me growing up in the bay area. When I heard Ken’s first Word Jazz albums, it was like a religious experience. It was not only a completely different way of thinking, but a fantastic combination of words and music…it wasn’t songs. It wasn’t poetry or songs exactly–it was a wonderfully peculiar kind of thing you thought only you think about. A lot of these things were formative and brought a significant sense of where my own aesthetics came from in those recordings…”
Devout Catalyst commences with “I Love A Groove”. Nordine explained this track in the liner notes as “…is grooving what comes naturally when the groove begins to happen inside your metabolic rate, anybody does it.” “Mr. Slick” begins with the lines: “Mr. Slick is smooth as a snake sliding through a bellyache”, as Garcia and Grisman weave serpentine notes that leave strange patterns in the sand. Who else better to play on an improvisation album than Jerry Garcia?
Nordine described “Inside Of Is” as: “A half real, half unreal bar called the Bubble where I’ve spent a lot of liquid, maybe you’ve been there, it’s a place where forgiveness erases the awful things you said or did the night before.”
Garcia’s acoustic guitar and Grisman’s mandolin contribute to the “shaggy doggerel” of “Aging Young Rebel”. “Quatrains Of Thought” emits an outer space jazz quality to Nordine’s clever vocal inflections and delivery. “Spread Eagle” sounds like a story told by a family member on the front porch with two friends playing a subtle acoustic soundtrack in the background.
“A Thousand Bing Bangs” is a dialogue with Tom Waits where they trade verbal choruses as Garcia’s signature guitar tone floats around the words. Nordine explains to Waits a screenplay no one wants to make on “The Movie”, which turns out to be a humorous conversation colored by Garcia’s acoustic meandering. The final number, “Last Will”, Nordine reveals “is a non legal document wherein the aforementioned allegedly gives away all his whims and notions.”
Ken Nordine passed away on February 16, 2019. Devout Catalyst ranks as one of the most essential spoken word albums in the last 30 years…and beyond…