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KGB Tune Dossier
KGB Tune Dossier Vol. 2
KGB's debut, Contra-intelligence, is a delight. Its contents are aptly described on its cover--"fiddle tunes infiltrated by foreign agents." King (piano), Ginsburg (violin, etc.), and Bartley (mandolin, etc.) play music designed for contradance but more than suitable for just listening.
From Victory Music Review, December 1996
Review by Jennifer Van West
Cittern, prim, tambura (look 'em up -- I did!), fiddle, piano, mandolin, and more combine with the talents of Julie King, Dave Bartley, and Claude Ginsburg to create a richly interpreted, stunningly arranged collection of original and traditional "fiddle tunes infiltrated by foreign agents." Amidst influences of Eastern Europe, Brazil, the Baroque era, French Canada, Ireland, England, we find the mildly sinister and Balkanesque Trip to Sofia played alongside the chipper Irish reel, The Reconciliation; a silly and skilled original polka set; Dave Bartley's lamenting Merry Waltz; a highly danceable French Canadian set; a fugue; Contra-intelligence, wherein the reel Julia Delaney is played against an original and highly experimental musical backdrop; the list goes on. When KGB plays a contra dance, King's piano ripples and rolls, Bartley's strings have punctuality and resonance, Ginsburg's fiddle has more voices than a choir, and dancers literally leave the floor from the excitement. They've captured that energy here with mastery and humor and without self-importance. This album left me with a sense of humility at the power of the music itself, which these three musicians so beautifully and sensitively express.
Review by Mike Richardson 8/17/96
Mike Richardson is a caller extraordinaire, fiddler (with Childsplay, among other combinations), tunesmith, and former CDSS board member living in Seattle.
I was delighted when I heard that KGB was going to cut an album. I've been around Julie, Claude and David in a lot of musical ways over the past 11 years. I've played in bands with all three of them, and have danced to them in quite a combination of other bands. I've called dances to their music many times, and I've also spent a lot of time experiencing their tasty brains while traveling to and from gigs. With all of this history between us, I was eager to see just what would crawl out of their heads for this album.
With most other bands, the outcome is a bit easier to foresee. The average country & western group will record a fairly predictable set of cheating-heart-pickup-truck-railroad-prison-mother tunes, and a bluegrass group will tend towards gospel-cabin-in-the-piney-woods-lil'-darlin' themes. However, with KGB, you have a group whose musical pedigree includes classical music, jazz, swing, hip hop, rock, tango, samba, Balkan, klezmer, Irish, Playford, French Canadian, and oldtime music. All three of these guys have also written a number of really swell tunes, making it even harder to categorize them.
Their repertoire is deep and wide. They also have a nice combination of musical confidence and a wild hair that leaves them not only flexible enough to take risks with their music, but also competent enough to pull it off. This makes it hard for a caller to stump them with a request for special tunes. Just for the heck of it, the next time you are calling a dance, try this little experiment with the band. With no advance warning, ask them if they can play either a two-part or a three-part slip jig for the next dance. If that doesn't faze them, try asking them to improvise on a 24 bar blues for the dance after that. If they can hack that, pull out all the stops, and ask for Balkan tunes with 7/8 time signatures, or for surprise tune choices, like "La Haba–era" from Bizet's opera, Carmen. I've done all of these things with KGB, and they have handled all of these requests with grace and style.
Then, there's the instrumental possibilities. Among them, they play an astonishing variety of things that you pluck, bow, squeeze, blow, hit and even walk on. The album credits list instruments from of all of these categories, including one instrument that even I have never heard of.
Despite all of these potential directions for the album to take, there were a few things I was certain about it: it would be original; it would be interesting; and it would contain some great dance music. After David gave me a preview copy of the album, I quickly verified these predictions. Among the 13 cuts on this album, I found several old friends and quite a few new ones. There are several swell jigs, some hot reel sets, and a very whimsical polka. One of my favorite English country dance tunes (a slip jig!) is there, too.
Besides playing the hell out of other people's tunes, Julie, David and Claude have all written exceptionally nice tunes of their own. This album nicely showcases a number of these tunes, including ethereal waltzes by David and Julie, and a really keen samba band number by Claude that makes me want to march around the neighborhood wearing a silly hat and whacking on a frigideira.
Someone once said that dancing is music made visible. When you are at a KGB dance, it's easy to see this effect in action. As their music changes in character from tune to tune, the dancing changes with it, alternating among smooth and pulsatile, calm and passionate, whimsical and profound, and many other Terpsichorean antipodes. However, no matter how wild or imaginative their music becomes, it comes back from the edge just in time to support you when you need it, and their steady, driving beat is always there, inexorably pulling your feet across the floor.
A famous conductor was once interviewed about his views on love and music. He was asked, "Which do you prefer in love or music, Maestro? An enthusiastic amateur, or a technically perfect professional?"
He replied, "They both have their merits. However, what one really wants is passionate virtuosity!"
I think that he would have really liked KGB.
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."