Photo credit: Vidar Ruud
KARIN KROG, Norway’s leading jazz singer is renowned for her constant creative approach toward contemporary jazz and for her own recognizable style and voice. On 13 November, in a rare club date, Karin Krog will perform in a duo format with British saxophonist and composer John Surman at Pizza Express Dean Street. Tomasz Furmanek interviewed Karin Krog in Oslo:
LondonJazz News: Would it be true to say that you were the first Norwegian jazz singer?
Karin Krog: No, there were a couple of singers before me who mostly sang popular music but performed some jazz too. However I could say I was the first one who fully committed herself to singing jazz. I started singing when I was a teenager. I was going to jam sessions at various clubs and cafes where some guys would play jazz… not perhaps something very usual for a girl at that time, to sing jazz and want to be a jazz singer. It would have been so much easier to follow the popular way of course, but for me it was mostly jazz, I sung it all the time.
LJN: Then, as far as I know, you recorded the first Norwegian vocal jazz album?
KK: Yes! It was an album called By Myself. I can recall it was really hard to get the opportunity to make an album for Philips. It didn’t come easy. I think the main problem was the belief that it wouldn’t sell. Eventually I managed to convince them and the album was released in 1964. It was very well received and it had very good reviews, not only in Norway.
LJN: Was that album a sort of breakthrough that opened an international jazz scene for you?
KK: I think that it was an international breakthrough for me as in 1966 we got an invitation to the Jazz Jamboree Festival in Warsaw and to the Prague Jazz Festival. I made some connections there, people like Willis Conover were there. Then I made another album called Jazz Moments and that also was quite well received internationally. I recorded it with Kenny Drew on piano, Niels Henning Ørsted Pedersen on bass and Jon Christensen on drums, and also Jan Garbarek who was on a couple of tracks.
LJN: You mentioned Jan Garbarek, didn’t he start his career playing in a band with you?
KK: Yes, he definitely played in my band quite early in his career. Our band went to the Montreux Jazz Festival, and it was there I met John Surman for the first time who, with his English band, played the same evening as we did. They heard us, we heard them, and we got to talk to each other. I guess this was in 1968. At that festival they had a soloist prize and the winner was John Surman, and Jan Garbarek came second! We played together with Jan for two to three years, so we knew each other and it was always a pleasure playing with him!
LJN: When did your long term musical collaboration with John Surman start?
KK: In the mid-’70s I played at the Jazz Jamboree again with Zbigniew Namysłowski’s group and it was very good. I was offered an invitation to perform in Nuremberg with the whole group, so I asked if they could come with me to play there, and they agreed. We went to Nuremberg and there I met John Surman again, whom I had not seen for years. John asked: “Are you still into electronics?” and I said “Well, yes, but there are not many people interested in that in Norway”. And he said “Why don’t we do an album together?” – you know, just like that! And Stu Martin was there too, and we decided “yeah, ok!”let’s do an album. We decided to produce the album ourselves. And pay for it.
LJN: So it was important for you to do this album.
KK: Yes, I think so! It was like doing something special. I knew that John composed very well for vocalists as he had an understanding for singers because he used to be a choirboy. His songs were very good to sing. Not only did the songs have a wonderful melody, but they had that kind of openness that enabled one to do many things with them. So he produced the song material, and then we started recording sessions.
LJN: Did you improvise a lot when recording Cloud Line Blue?
KK: In some tracks the melody was already there. There were finished ballads like, for example, Empty Streets. And there were other tracks that were just background and had lyrics, so it was up to me to improvise, to provide the melody, to insert melodic changes, but all the time you had to carry the words, and be true and faithful to the words, and the words had to fit the melody. It’s not easy, but this is the work you have to strive for. And certainly, in recording that album, this was the case. But doing some of the pieces of music was a real challenge. And the lyrics… abstract, with a certain sadness to them – I had to discover and find out within myself what the lyrics were about, and what story was I telling. The nice thing about this album is that now, after many years, the youngsters are re-discovering it. Sometimes that’s the way it is with music, especially when it’s something new and created without following anybody else’s footsteps.
LJN: You collaborated with so many outstanding, world-renowned musicians. You always praised Steve Kuhn as an outstanding accompanist – didn’t you say he is “all a singer could dream about an accompanist could be”?
KK: Steve used to live in Sweden from ’69 to ’74. He was engaged to the Swedish singer Monica Zetterlund, who recorded a wonderful album with Gil Evans. She was a very good singer, and we used to be friends, and it was she who introduced me to Steve Kuhn. When he was living in Sweden he composed all those songs like Meaning of Love and Raindrops, and in 1974 we recorded together the album We Could Be Flying. Since then I have always had some of his songs in my repertoire. I’ve been thinking a lot about what makes him such an exceptional accompanist. I think that for me, it’s his voicings, the way he lays down the harmonies. They are open, and they give me the freedom to go anywhere… yes, that’s the most exceptional thing about it. And his timing! It’s wonderful to work with him, so whenever I can work with him I feel really happy. He lives in New York now, so it’s not that often and easy to get to work together!
LJN: You recorded an album with Dexter Gordon, called Some Other Spring. Would you tell us the story?
KK: I knew about him and my husband had his albums in his record collection. He was known in London, he came to Europe in 1962 after being away for many years, he played at Ronnie Scott’s. I was booked to appear at Ronnie Scott’s in May 1962, I think, for two weeks. It is very rare to be in a jazz club for two weeks, so I was looking forward to being there. Then the owner called me to let me know that he had also booked Dexter Gordon for the same time and that we would be there together. I worked for two weeks opposite Dexter. We both did one set every evening, so of course I got to know him. Later in the ’60s I often saw him at various festivals. Sometimes he would come over for concerts to Norway and my husband would take care of him. We talked about making a record together and this eventually happened in 1970.
LJN: Within one day.
KK: Yes… they came to Copenhagen, but he was not allowed to come in to Norway, because he had a record for possession of drugs in France. So we smuggled him in. We actually wrote to the Minister of Justice – “no, he couldn’t come!” was the answer. So we hired a studio for the Sunday, and he had to come. And they did – Kenny and Dexter came together through customs – Kenny said that he carried the saxophone and Dexter just went through with him! It was so very lucky! We started recording around midday and we ended the session at 7 – 8pm in the evening, and that was it! The album won a Grammy in Japan. And Gordon luckily managed to get out of Norway without problems.
Karin Krog and John Surman will be at Pizza Express Jazz Club, 10 Dean Street, London, on
Monday 13 November 2017 at 8.30pm as part of the 2017 EFG London Jazz Festival.
LINKS: Booking details
John Surman interview on LondonJazz News