Recordings Etc. |
About us |
The KGB pages are maintained by Dave Bartley
© 2009 Mole Records
Schedule and news
Recordings and books
In from the Cold
The Red Light of Evening
KGB Tune Dossier
KGB Tune Dossier Vol. 2
Now it can be revealed: Contra dance bands use cheap tricks to get reactions out of the dancers. Some tricks get the dancers smiling or singing along. It's hard for the 40-something dancers to resist singing along to the theme song from Mr. Ed. The Holy Grail of dancer reactions is the "Woo!". Bands just wanna make the dancers go "Woo!!". This can happen when the band changes tunes from an insipid jig to a driving reel, or with an artful key-change in a medley.
It can also happen when something totally unexpected -- something, well..."foreign" -- happens. The first time I experienced this phenomenon was with the band Yankee Ingenuity at the Concord Scout House some time in the mid-'80's. To my surprise and delight they played a Romanian folk dance tune. It was exhilarating, even though the phrasing of the tune made it a little difficult to dance to.
Over the years, more bands started incorporating numbers that were direct lifes from the International Folk Dance scene. Bands would develop a specialty number glenaed from foreign cultures, like Klezmer, Hungary or the Balkans, for instance. Later, domestic composers were inspired to craft new tunes that incorporate foreign motifs. Some bands like the two in this review, have embrace this trend in forming their "sound".
[review of Moving Violations recording omitted]
Following a similar track, but on the West coast, is the band KGB (formed from the letters of the band member's last names: Julie King, Claude Ginsburg, and Dave Bartley). They have released two extraordinary albums of dance/listening music.
Their latest release, "Volga Notions -- Contradance Music for the Critical Masses", continues in the tradition established by their first album "Contra-intelligence" of wit combined with expert musicianship, emotion and textures.
There are a few familiar traditional tunes ("Frenchies Reel", "Sligo Creek", "High Reel") but they serve more as breathers and departure points for the band's signature tunes rather than showpieces in themselves. The highlight material is often composed by the band members, and incorporates musical motifs from Russia, the Mideast and the Balkans.
My favorite medley composed of four tunes by Dave Bartley begins with about 30 seconds of mood-noodling on a mandolin, sounding not unlike a balalaika. Four strong strums introduces the tune "Volga Notions". There aren't many jigs in the Russian traditional dance music repertoire, but this sounds as though it could be one of them, with its minor mode echoes of countless Russian tunes. The next tune, "Craggy Dome", another minor jig, serves as a good transition tune, not upstaging the following material. A seamless transition brings us into a reel "I-5 Corridor", in minor for the A parts, but major for the B parts. By this time, the musicians are really starting to show their stuff. The last tune, "The Outback", a major reel features some great syncopation and great playing. Fans of fiddler Claude Ginsburg's signature high countermelodies will enjoy his work here. This cut, at 8 minutes and 36 seconds, just blew me away. Woo!
Is it boredom with the regular repertoire, or the indulging in a musical wanderlust that drives these two bands? It doesn't really matter. Just redeem those frequent-flyer miles and enjoy the ride.
KGB is a trio of Julie King, Claude Ginsburg and Dave Bartley, and takes its name from the initials of the group members' surnames. Their music is fairly typical of a current trend in contradance music; much of it is based on the anglo-celtic traditions out of which the contra dance arose, but it also contains an intriguing sprinkling of other ethnic influences, especially Balkan, French-Canadian and even some South American.
Contra-Intelligence, billed as "Fiddle tunes infiltrated by foreign agents," has the more overt Eastern European influences of the two albums, with tunes titled "Trip to Sofia," "Crimea River," and "U Sest Koraka." Still, it's heavily weighted with highly danceable jigs and reels.
Although the CD's subtitle calls these fiddle tunes, the driving force behind KGB's music seems to me to be Dave Bartley, who plays mandolin, guitar, cittern, banjo and other stringed instruments. Claude Ginsburg plays mainly violin, but also contributes viola, mandolin and concertina, while Julie King plays piano; all contribute to the percussion. All three write tunes, but Bartley wrote the bulk of the contemporary numbers that are mixed on both discs with traditional tunes. And his spirit and sense of humor, reflected by the puns in the songs' titles, infuse both CDs.
Which is not to downplay the contributions of Ginsburg and King. Indeed, some of the best moments on both CDs are when two of the three are playing in unison. There are countless stirring passages when the mandolin and violin, or violin and piano, or piano and mandolin, play note-for-note on intricate melodies. A good example comes in the very first track, "Trip to Sofia," a loping Balkan-style melody.
The ensemble's abilities with an intricate melody are shown off in "Fugue," the third part of a medly that also includes a couple of jigs; this classical-style piece takes the melody of the previous tune and breaks it up into three parts for piano, cittern and violin, in the fugue or round style.
The title track by Ginsburg is almost a deconstruction of a contradance tune, with the violin laying down the melody over a stop-start backing by piano, concertina and percussion. The band also delves into Brazilian samba on "Chorinho," Appalachian music on "The Other Road to Durham," and Scottish fiddle music on "Highlander's Farewell."
Volga Notions is a little more straightforwardly a contradance CD, hewing a bit more closely to anglo-celtic dance tunes. Still, there's plenty of variety, including a habanera (Cuban-Spanish dance) called "Habanera" (after the chili pepper), using as its melody the familiar tune from Bizet's opera "Carmen," which Bizet borrowed from a Basque composer, Sebastien Yradier. How's that for international flavors?
I was irresistably drawn to "Gasworks Park," the first tune in a medley with "Scatter the Mud" and "Ferris Eugene." Julie King named her bouncy jig after an actual park in Seattle, where Morris dancers sometimes practice, and which showed up in Seattle sci-fi writer Greg Bear's recent book, Darwin's Radio.
Many of the tunes on both CDs are named after places, several in the Pacific Northwest, including "The I-5 Corridor." This is part of the penultimate track, an evocative set of two jigs and two reels that ranges from the Russian-influenced title tune, "Volga Notions," through "Craggy Dome," for a mountain in North Carolina, to the aforementioned I-5 tune, to "The Outback," named not for Australia but for Bartley's car.
Of course both also include some waltzes, including King's "Call It a Night," and some very minor-key, sweetly sad pieces by Bartley such as "The Clock Stopped," "The Empty Place," and the perhaps ironically titled "The Merry Waltz."