Finding Home: An Interview with Kristin Korb
Packing up everything you own and moving over 5,000 miles to make a new home is a life-changing event. It forces you to learn a new culture, a new language, meet new people, and generally get you completely out of your comfort zone. That’s precisely what happened to bassist and vocalist Kristin Korb after she left sunny Southern California for the Nordic land of Denmark.
To Korb, who sits as president of the International Society of Bassists, expanding boundaries is a path for growth. Her upbringing in Montana told her she would need a change to lead a jazz career, so she left to study in California. It’s there that she learned from artists like Bertram Turetzky and Ray Brown. Korb’s recording debut was with the jazz legend on Introducing Kristin Korb With the Ray Brown Trio. She in turn became a professor and has subsequently become heavily involved in jazz bass and voice education.
Korb sums up her experiences and emotions moving from California to Denmark in her seventh album, Finding Home. The release is a sonic journey that showcases her talents as well as her writing chops as all nine songs are original compositions. Ranging from up-tempo swing to ballads to sambas, the groove never quits as she lays down the low end and lyrically soars overtop of the band.
We reached out to Korb to get the scoop on the new album, how she combines playing and singing, and the differences between American and European jazz cultures.
Finding Home is based around your move from California to Denmark. How did that come about?
I met my husband on a jazz cruise in the Caribbean – he was running sound and I was one of the all-stars. We became friends and realized throughout the course of the week that we had all these connections from way back. [There were] events that we went to at the same time and concerts and festivals and all sorts of things, but we had never met. It really speaks to the idea that timing is everything. I can’t imagine being with anybody else.
I had no idea the journey would take me to Denmark. I don’t really know that I was completely aware of where Denmark was when I met him. I knew it was in Europe, but like many Americans I think I was a little geographically challenged. I have learned a lot [laughs]. But I think it makes a difference when you visit a place. You really get to meet the people and see the places and really understand what makes a place unique and special.
Did you start writing the album with a song or two or did you sit down after your move and think, “I just had this crazy experience and I have to get it out in music”?
“Jeg Elsker Dig,” which is Danish for “I love you,” was kind of about the long distance relationship thing. I started that one before I moved, but I didn’t finish all the lyrics until 2012 when I was on a tour of Sweden. I started “The Letter” the summer of last year, and it was one of those summers where it was just rain, rain, rain, rain… The working title at the time was “Summer?” [laughs]. Then the lyric developed itself into spring.
Most of the writing musically was done in January. I had made a goal for myself. My piano player, Magnus Hjorth, had done a thing the year before where he made himself write a song every day of the month in January. He gave himself fifteen minutes [each day]. He wrote a lot of really great things with some things he could use and some he couldn’t, but [it was] just having the discipline of doing that every day. Part of it for me was just the experiment as seeing if it was something I could do. I started waking up and having ideas that I’d have to write down. I knew with “Something to Celebrate,” it was about being happy with where I was and I knew that [sings always something to celebrate] – I knew that part but I had no idea about the rest of the lyric until about May, right before we finishing recording. I had the music ready, but sometimes it just takes a while.
Music can say things beyond what we can put words to. I think that’s such a lovely gift that we have in the music in that we can use to express ourselves and allow others within the band to express themselves as well without having to say exactly what the details are. As soon as you put a text to it, it’s like, “Ok, how does this work with the melody I wrote? How do I say things in the right way that are clear and honest and poetic and something singable that will taste good in the mouth?” Sometimes that has to be tweaked by just a syllable here or maybe you have the right word but because of the note it falls on, it feels totally awkward. Or you have to rephrase the sentence to make it fit but you want to be able to just read it as a text and have it make sense as well. For me text was actually the larger challenge.
Your ability to sing and play at the same time is so strong that sometimes it sounds like two separate people instead of just you. How did you get there? Is it something you practice all the time or does it come naturally?
When I started it was really like divide and conquer. So I’d learn the vocal part then learn the bass part, put on the metronome and do both together really slowly. At first the voice will have to be automatic while the voice is exploring things or the bass has to be automatic while the voice is exploring things. I think one of the things I got from Ray Brown is that he really expected all of his students to be able to sing and play at the same time. It wasn’t a concept of having someone singing and playing on their next concert, but the idea [that] your bass line is a countermelody to the melody. If you can’t sing the melody, do you really know what it is? And do you know the relationship of those melodic notes against the roots? So if you know the line and you can sing it, then you can figure out within your bass lines where that needs to go to compliment the melody in the best way. So even to take it from a basic root motion thing, you can take it and build them to interweave.
At this point I still do divide and conquer, depending on the song and depending on what I’m hearing in the music. Depending on where the groove is and where the vocal falls around it, I may need to work on a few things. I’ll do some more rhythmic things with the bass then try to put the vocal on top. Or if there’s something I hear in my head, I’ll have to stop and say, “Ok, this is what I want to sing and if this is what I hear, then how does that work?” Then I free form it and see what happens. Is it something that appears organically? Is it something I need to look at in a different way and develop?
The consensus seems to be that there’s a big cultural difference for jazz in the U.S. versus Europe. What kind of differences do you see?
My awareness of the whole scene right now has been that I read what Americans write, and the things I read from Americans is that jazz in Europe is awesome, and it’s state sponsored, there’s all this support and in America you’re not respected. I think it’s true to a point, but there’s two sides to everything. [In the U.S. you have] the musician’s union saying “this is how much a gig should pay” or people are just playing for whatever you can get. In Denmark, there’s not even a discussion about what you get paid because there is a [minimum wage]. It’s the equivalent of about $350, which is great, and most gigs are a concert setting.
Now, the thing is that every little town has their own jazz club, but the club is a group of people and not the venue. The venue may be in a school or in a local community room, or some other place we may think of as more of a club setting. But people subscribe [and] have memberships to these clubs. They donate their time and they donate their money to make sure the series exists. They have live music sometimes once a month and sometimes once a week, but a lot of these places just do it once a month. When you go to some towns, you may have to go three or three and a half hours to get there. They treat you really well and it’s awesome. You feel great; you feel like a rock star. But you can’t work there again for the next three years unless you’re going to work as a sideman for other people. That would be cool as a bass player except when I moved here, people expected me to be the singing bass player so I don’t do a lot of sideman gigs. I’ve had a few times where other guys will say, “Oh Kristin, I’ve got a gig for us.” I’ll think, “Great, I get to be a sideman because I didn’t book the gig.” Then I’m playing with them and I find out it’s billed as the Kristin Korb Duo or Kristin Korb trio. It’s because that musician has already played that venue in the past few years, so the only way they can go back is if they present [the show] as a new person in charge.
So from the business side, that’s where I see a lot of the differences. Musically, the difference I see in Denmark is that there are events, festival, and venues that exist for more improvised music. There are more groups and places to play experimental music. For instance, in Copenhagen there’s a place called Paradise. One night there will be a straight-ahead group and the next night will be completely experimental. It’s cool that there is that flexibility. In the U.S., clubs kind of decide how they will present their music, and the big variation would be from bebop to latin jazz [laughs]. I was also surprised to find there are a ton of Dixieland bands here, as well.
I think perhaps one of the reasons I decided at this point in my career to write an album of original material is that I don’t feel any expectation from my fans here, in that they don’t expect me to just sing standards. There is a real respect factor in Europe for people who write their own material. I think there’s a respect for it in the U.S. as well, but [people expect to always have standards]. And in jazz, isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? As jazz musicians, the tradition has been that you write your own music. Horace Silver never recorded standards. He always did his own thing. Of course now everyone calls [his songs] standards, but that’s not how it always was.
I was thinking the other day that there are certain songs that if I sing or play them, it’s only going to make people – including myself – want to go back and hear the Ella Fitzgerald version or the Carmen McRae or the Frank Sinatra, or whatever. You know, life moves on. I’m very deep in my tradition and I love that music so much, but I have to dig a little deeper within myself, too, and find where that music resides in me and how I express it without having to rely on the same old melodies and stories.
It’s interesting that in the jazz genre, and in other genres to an extent, we always have to compete against artists who have long since passed.
Yeah. And if you do write something, when you write something original is it still jazz if it borrows from another style? I have a song on my CD where it’s like, “yeah, this is my rock tune,” which is the song “Invisible.” In my head [it’s heavy], but in reality it’s like one of those posters from Facebook that say, “This is what I think I do, this is what my friends think I do, and this is what it really is” [laughs]. I know that my roots show in the music, whether or not in my own imagination it’s my rock tune. It’s got jazz chords all over the place. I just wonder where people will stop thinking it’s a jazz album.
With Esperanza Spalding, she’s got so many wonderful influences in her music and she just wants to tell her own story. It borrows from all kinds of styles, but the media has a tendency to give something a name. Is it jazz or is it not jazz? And there’s so much in that word and depending on where you come from, you can predispose yourself to liking something or not liking something before you’ve ever even heard it.
So how do we get over that?
I think we need to just enjoy and be open to things without having to call it something. Taste, especially in younger listeners, is just so eclectic. I think it’s a positive thing with the movement of the internet. One of the things I’ve noticed with younger listeners is that they’re so open to everything. You ask them what kind of music they like and they typically say that they like everything. So I think the problem is solving itself in a way with younger listeners. There are pockets of people that are really great at being that open, then there are others that treat it a little bit like food. Even if you don’t like something the first time you try it, if you just try a little bit every time it passes you then you can grow to understand it and appreciate it, even if it’s not what resonates with you the most.
The same could be said about adjusting to a new environment.
One of my hopes for the album is that it initiates a conversation about more than “Oh yeah, this is Kristin moving to Denmark,” but in our global mobility – as we are able to travel more, as borders become a little more fluid in places, as technology improves – I think it’s really important for us to think about how we take care of each other across those borders. It’s not just issues of governmental policies for immigration, but really how do we take care of each other and our awareness of people that may be new. It might just be somebody new in town; it doesn’t have to be from another country. But how do we treat those people that may be a little different from us? How do we take care of each other? How do we listen and maintain an awareness and kindness as we move through this world together?