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Ron Korb: Pan-Global Flutist

Ron Korb: Pan-Global Flutist
Rob Caldwell By

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In a 20-year career, Grammy nominated flutist Ron Korb has experienced the lows and highs of a touring musician. He's been stuck in the Panamanian jungle when the bus transporting he and his band to their show broke down, leaving them teetering on the top of a hillside for hours in the blazing sun while repairs were done. Yet, he's also had many experiences to treasure, such as when he performed a concert for 3000 people at the historic Heian Shrine in Kyoto, Japan on a stage situated upon a reflecting pool with rows of radiant blooming cherry trees lining either side. Though he's explored the music of many cultures, it all started with jazz, which is still a part of his playing today. We caught up with the Canadian musician, who has just released his 20th album, World Café, a jazz inflected mix of Latin and Caribbean flavored original compositions.

All About Jazz: Who were and are some of your influences, both as a flutist and in a broader sense? 

Ron Korb: My first love was jazz. As a teenager that is what I collected. That is what got me into the flute, by listening to jazz flute players like Hubert Laws and especially Moe Koffman.  In fact, when I got my learners drivers licence the first thing I did was to grab an older licensed friend and drive down to George's Spaghetti House in Toronto's Cabbagetown district to see Moe play. In retrospect, it is amazing that they even let us into a licensed club at the age of 16 as we looked about nine. Since I was a fan back in the day, it was really nice the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame asked me to join Jane Bunnett and many of Moe Koffman's sidemen to recreate his hit "Swinging Shepherd Blues" for Covered Classics at the CBC music website. 

AAJ: Were there any other memorable jazz artists you saw back then? 

RK: Back then I was obsessed with jazz and visual art. I was a strange kid in that sense as all my school mates were into rock, and I was collecting jazz records and going to jazz festivals and clubs. At the time Toronto's Ontario Place had daily concerts in the summer and featured a lot of legendary artists. It had a great outdoor amphitheatre with a revolving stage where I saw some amazing shows by Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, Sonny Rollins, VSOP, Herbie Mann, Pat Metheny, Maynard Ferguson, George Benson, Larry Coryell, Chuck Mangione, Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass and many more. I went to many memorable shows in clubs and theatres as well where I saw Art Blakey, Dave Brubeck, Wayne Shorter, Wynton Marsalis, Miles Davis, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, etc.   Seeing Art Pepper play at Toronto's Bourbon Street club on Queen Street was a particular highlight. It was so fantastic I actually went to see him twice that week. He just had such an incredible way of expressing himself through his horn. He died in Los Angeles shortly after.

AAJ: Let's talk some about World Café, the album you've just put out.

RK: World Café is a project I have wanted to do for many years. The album features the western flute but there are tracks that feature the Japanese ocarina and bamboo flute and bass flute. We had some productive rehearsals with the musicians which made the recording sessions very fruitful. It is really a pleasure when all the technical and musical challenges have been ironed out and you can just focus on capturing the magic. The album was recorded at Kuhl Musik in Toronto with as many of the musicians playing live off the floor as possible. Gary Honess, the engineer, worked on my last two projects where we did quite a bit of experimentation to get the best sound. I feel on World Café all that previous work has really paid off. The core band are friends I have played with for decades: Bill Evans, Larry Crowe and Steve Lucas. I am very happy that Grammy nominated Cuban jazz pianist Hilario Duran guested with his conga player Papiosco and bassist Roberto Riveron. I am also honored to have the amazing contributions of guitarist Johannes Linstead and legendary accordionist Joseph Macerollo.  

AAJ: The song titles on World Café hop around geographically. Have you been to all the places named?

RK: Yes, I have been to all the places that are named specifically like Cuba, New Orleans, Argentina, Cordoba, Spain and in general the Mediterranean countries and the Caribbean. 

AAJ: What's your favorite place that you've been in Latin America?

RK: I think they are all great places to visit and the people are wonderful. If you think about it, South America is like the mirror image of North America.  Chile has beautiful rocky mountains like British Columbia, and Argentina being far south of the equator is somewhat similar to Canada with four distinct seasons. I like Buenos Aires not just because of its old world charm but because of the cultural diversity similar to Toronto.

AAJ: In a sense your whole recording career could be termed a "world café," with all the places and geographical inspirations that have run through your music. World Café is a far remove musically from the Asian-influenced recordings you've done the last few years. What made you decide to go in a more tropical Latin/Caribbean direction with this one?  Is this the first time you've really delved into those sounds?

RK: World Café is far removed from the Asia Beauty album but not from all my previous work. In 1995 on my album Behind the Mask I had a Latin tune called "Dark Eyes" and a Calypso piece called "Shadow Puppets." Also, on my Ron Korb Live DVD/CD, I had "Casco Viejo" and "La Sirena." I have always wanted to make an album like this and I feel like my wish has finally come true.

AAJ: The song "Island Life" on World Café has an unusual flute sound. What kind of flute are using?

RK: I am playing a Japanese Ocarina made from the high-quality mud of Nagoya. It is the same kind of instrument as the famous Japanese Ocarina player Sojiro uses on his recordings. In some of the sections I doubled it with the bass flute which gives it a sound similar to African flute.

AAJ: Your career, in a sense, is reminiscent of flutist Herbie Mann's, who was always exploring different cultures in his music. Do you count Mann as an influence and if so, in what way? 

RK: It is interesting you mention him because my favourite Herbie Mann album, Big Boss Mann, was the first time I heard flute used in a Latin jazz context. It is a big band with an Afro Cuban percussion section with Chick Corea playing piano and covers of Dizzy Gillespie's "Manteca," Nat Adderley's "The Jive Samba" and Horace Silver's "Senor Blues." I used to listen to it constantly the summer I bought it and listening now makes me reminisce. I guess I was influenced by the way Herbie explored different genres, but Moe Koffman was similar in the way his albums like Solar Explorations, Museum Pieces, Jungle Man and Master Session were thematic.

AAJ: Who are some of your other jazz influences, flute and non-flute, and how have they influenced your playing?

RK:In terms of flute, I also listened to James Moody, Eric Dolphy, Anthony Braxton, Paul Horn, Lew Tabackin, Yusef Lateef, Roland Kirk, Dave Valentin, Sam Most and many others. A jazz professor told me early on if you want to get into jazz don't listen to flute. Most flute players reading this have probably had something similar told to them. In any case, I did get into Miles, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane. It is hard to say who influenced me the most but I always tended to like lyrical players who told a story when they played. Players like Lester Young, Paul Desmond and Sidney Bechet are classic. As a student my tone and technique were greatly influenced by the classical flutists like Jean-Pierre Rampal, Robert Aitken and James Galway. However, once I went to Japan and studied traditional Japanese flute all that changed. I guess in a broader sense I am inspired by a wide variety of music and the various cultures that I have visited. 

AAJ: What do you listen to in your spare time?

RK: That really changes all the time depending on my mood. Music is really the soundtrack of your life. I try to listen to every genre out there. For example, last year when I was in Alberta I was really enjoying listening to Alison Krauss and other country and bluegrass music. It just suited the environment perfectly. Sometimes I like discovering new sounds, so I spend my spare time listening to music from wildly diverse genres including World, Dance, Jazz, R&B, Folk, Classical, Alt Rock, Mariachi, all the way to Doom Metal.  

AAJ: What style/genre of music do you most enjoy playing? 

RK: Throughout the years I have developed my own composing style which is a hybrid of various genres with world textures and western harmony. I have also cultivated a personal flute playing style which includes a lot of improv but not necessarily using jazz patterns and concepts primarily. At this point in my career playing my own compositions is what is most rewarding.

AAJ: You originally wanted to be a filmmaker. Has that interest steered you more toward soundtracks and TV than you may have done otherwise?

RK: In a certain way I have been swayed by my early filmmaking interests. I am always excited to do projects with film composers and producers. I would also say it influences the way I write music. Even though my music is instrumental, the songs always have a topic and are telling a story. The song order is very important to me as well and I position each track of an album like a chapter of a book.  I like to make music that encourages the listener to create their own visual images while listening.

AAJ: You've guested on many musicians' albums and on stage, including with Peter Gabriel and Olivia Newton John.  Who would you like to play with who you haven't yet?

RK: There are many who I would love to perform with but the one that comes to mind first is Stevie Wonder. I have seen him perform three times (once in Tokyo and twice in Toronto) and I would love to have the chance to play the flute solo in "Another Star" or "As."

AAJ: It's been noted that you have an extensive collection of over 250 flutes.  What are some of the highlight pieces of this collection?

RK: What comes to mind as being my most cherished instruments are Pie Pook and ox horn from Cambodia made by master musician Yim Saing. I also have a Chinese xiao and a Japanese shinobue gifted to me my master makers in Asia. As far as western music my two Albert Cooper head joints, particularly the beautifully engraved 14 karat solid gold one, are highlight pieces. My Altus bass flute is also quite an important part of my collection.
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