Every type of jazz fan can find something to love in Karin Krog — the catch is that not many folks in America have heard of her. She’s been a household name in her native Norway since the Sixties, known for her clever compositions, inventive vocal experiments, and impressive versatility. In Japan, where she’s toured extensively, the original pressing of her 1968 record Joy (featuring her first forays into improvisation) has reportedly sold for up to $1,500. Her records didn’t receive distribution in the U.S. until nearly three decades of her career had passed, which is partly to blame for her obscurity here. But that’s made anthologizing her work a perfect project for the professional vinyl nerds over at Light in the Attic. Their crash course in Krog, a compilation titled Don’t Just Sing, culls from a catalog spanning 1963 to 1999. There are bluesy renditions of Joni Mitchell tunes and reimagined jazz standards, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg for Krog.
An early adopter of electronic looping techniques, Krog experimented with multi-tracking and layer-on-layer dubs in the studio over a decade before the Eighties synth boom finally allowed her to replicate these techniques onstage. On Don’t Just Sing, it’s her fantastical wordless vocalizations and freeform improvisation that truly set her apart. And her sheer longevity is to be admired as well — Krog has stayed very active, performing and writing new material though she’s nearly 80, as well as running a record label, Meantime, from her home. To celebrate the release of the anthology, Light in the Attic’s Pat Thomas invited Krog to New York for a rare U.S. appearance at esteemed cabaret enclave Joe’s Pub.
Accompanying Krog on piano was none other than Steve Kuhn, with whom Krog first worked in 1974, recording the acclaimed We Could Be Flying. Several of those songs made it onto Don’t Just Sing. Krog has since worked with Kuhn, a born Brooklynite, off and on for decades, and the magic between them was automatic. If Krog seemed somewhat shaky at first, the lithe rhythms of Kuhn’s fingers on the keys helped her keep her bearings. The setlist comprised mainly standards, some of which populate the recently released Break of Day, which Kuhn and Krog recorded in New York in October 2013, but there were also nostalgic treats from that first collaboration, like “Meaning of Love,” which Kuhn composed specifically for Krog.
The first few songs of Krog’s set established a romantic theme: the singer as world traveler. Clad in an exquisite floor-length kimono — perhaps a nod to those rabid Japanese fans — Krog opened with “Where You At?” before moving into “Break of Day at Molde,” from which her most recent collab with Kuhn takes its name. Krog explained that the track was a reworking of Carla Bley’s “Ida Lupino” with new lyrics that reflect upon a stroll through idyllic small-town Norway after a late-night jam session. It was originally set to tape in 1969 but only surfaced when some CD reissues of Joy added it to the track list, and Kuhn and Krog re-recorded it for their most recent record. The 1969 version appears on Don’t Just Sing as well.
As a performer, Krog is equal parts glamour and earthiness, and “It Could Be Hip” cemented that persona. Written by longtime musical collaborator John Surman, with whom Krog now lives in a villa outside Oslo, “It Could Be Hip” is a laundry list of the finer things in life one dreams about when young — sailing, bright lights, beaches, peaches, and wine. But it builds to the conclusion that Krog isn’t the sort to be waited on hand and foot — and that singing for a living, as it turns out, is hard work. “Here I am in front of the band, trying to sing you a song,” she croons, ending with the lines, “Maybe it’s crazy, but this is the way for me/I need the music, it’s simply the way to be,” her last extended note wavering over soft flourishes from Kuhn. It’s the perfect distillation of Krog’s quirk, at least as far as her more straightforward numbers go.
For the most part, Krog never strayed into more avant-garde territory, but the exceptions were notable. “Canto Mai,” also written with Surman, had a breathy spoken interlude that seemed a combination of ancient Viking tongue, Portuguese, and scat. And later in the set, a mini-medley of two traditional Norwegian folk songs, sung a cappella, saw Krog exploring her familial heritage. Her great-grandfather Anders Heyerdahl was a composer as well as a Norwegian folk music anthropologist, collecting and documenting works from mountain villages. Krog sang two of these short traditional tunes; the first had an almost primal feel, her vocal long and low and incantatory, wheeling between guttural and lilting. The second Krog described as a gypsy song about wishing for a home. Its playful melody lit up the audience, which unsurprisingly seemed to skew Scandinavian, but whether that was recognition or general delight is hard to say.
Krog appears to be thriving on some font of youthful exuberance, her eyes shining and her smile coming easily. It would be remarkable if, in these golden years, a surge of American popularity would finally come due for her, but her show at Joe’s wasn’t necessarily a shining example of why she deserves recognition. Her entertaining, lighthearted originals deserve to be standards in their own right, but what makes Krog most compelling is the experimental vocal work showcased on Don’t Just Sing. Light in the Attic seemed to know it was worthy of delving into, and used their keen curatorial skills to highlight it and make her traditional numbers seem somehow more enlightened. But paired with a more toned-down set, likely tailored for the Joe’s Pub crowd, Krog’s potential for transcendence faded slightly. Her version of “I’m Old Fashioned” only confirmed this; the somewhat cutesy number was almost a shrug-off to her days of pioneering vocal studies.
Then again, jazz can be a sentimental genre, and given the rarity with which Krog performs in the U.S., it makes sense that this was the angle she chose to take. Closing with Cole Porter’s “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye,” also the last track she recorded with Kuhn for Break of Day, made for a fond farewell. It’s hard to say if and when she’ll be back in town, but for those in the know, Krog’s performance was certainly a gift.