Norma Winstone: Britain's Poetic Jazz Singer

Songs from the CD

Norma Winstone, vocals; Glauco Venier, piano; Klaus Gesing, bass clarinet, soprano saxophone

courtesy of ECM records

British jazz singer Norma Winstone

Veteran jazz vocalist Norma Winstone's new CD, Distances, features lyrics of her own, plus those by Peter Gabriel, Cole Porter and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Luca d'Agostino hide caption

itoggle caption Luca d'Agostino

In a career spanning five decades, British jazz vocalist Norma Winstone has pioneered, experimented and collaborated to push her music to the cutting edge. She's developed "wordless" vocals, written her own lyrics and covered the classics, always ending up with something new.

The dark atmosphere in Winstone's cover of Cole Porter's "Every Time We Say Goodbye" was created, in part, by the two other musicians in her trio: Italian pianist Glauco Venier and German clarinetist/saxophonist Klaus Gesing. Together, they've released a new CD, Distances, on the ECM label.

Words and Music

Winstone didn't start out as a lyricist but says that, years ago, she felt a need to expand her repertoire.

"I heard, on an ECM recording by Egberto Gismonti, a piece called 'Café,'" Winstone says. "And I loved it, and I thought I could imagine myself singing that. But there aren't any words, and I didn't know any lyricists, and so I thought, well, I've have a try myself. And people said, 'Wow, that's absolutely right for that piece of music,' and Egberto liked them, and so I just went on from there."

Winstone's approach to the words in a song is organic. She says she thinks of the voice as a sound and doesn't want the notes to sound "alien" to the music, as if they've been added on.

"For me, the words are things I discover in the music," she says. "I don't like words that are just put together, and you say, 'I have enough syllables there and that fits that line.' I don't work like that. The words have to come out of the music."

Satie Meets Pasolini

Winstone reads a lot of poetry and gets inspired. Perhaps the most interesting confluence of music and text on the new disc is the song "Ciant" (which translates as "Giant" from the Friulian dialect in northern Italy).

The text, by the late Italian film director Pier Paolo Pasolini, describes a longing for his village — the sounds of the frogs and church bells. The music is by Erik Satie, the eccentric, early 20th-century French composer whose piece, Petite overture à danser, caught the attention of Winstone's pianist. He fit the words and music together — and even taught Winstone how to sing the song in the rarely used Friulian dialect.

Unexpected Distances

Recording Distances for ECM came about very much by chance. Winstone, Gesing and Venier had cut a disc for another label when ECM founder and producer Manfred Eicher happened upon an interview with Gesing on Bavarian radio. Eicher became even more interested in the trio after he unexpectedly met Venier at a dinner party. Meanwhile, Winstone says, there were a few disagreements between the musicians, but she decided to pick up the phone, leaving a message for Eicher at label headquarters.

"I just said, 'I think Manfred is interested in this group, I'm not sure. But we want to make another recording. And if he's interested, could he call me back?' Two minutes later, the phone rang, and it was Manfred, saying he wanted to record."

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