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Jessye Norman: Back To Her 'Roots'

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Jessye Norman: Back To Her 'Roots'

Jessye Norman: Back To Her 'Roots'

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

We're spending the next few minutes with one of the most celebrated sopranos in the world, Jessye Norman. Now, she's known for singing arias in places like La Scala and the Met, which is why you may not be used to hearing her sound like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOD'S GONNA CUT YOU DOWN")

JESSYE NORMAN: (Singing) Go tell that long tongue liar, go tell that midnight rider. Tell the gambler, rambler, back biter. Tell them that God Almighty is going to cut him down. Stop...

LOUISE KELLY: That's Jessye Norman singing "God's Gonna Cut You Down," a folksong and it appears on her first solo recording in more than 10 year. It's called "Roots: My Life, My Song."

NORMAN: This music has been playing in my spirit and in my soul all of my life. And I was remembering all of the things that I used to listen to as a child, and all of the music that accompanies me on tour and those sort of various hotel rooms, and all the rest of it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY BABY JUST CARES FOR ME")

NORMAN: (Singing) My baby don't care to show. My baby don't care for clothes. My baby just cares for me.

LOUISE KELLY: Now, you've included on this recording some of the most iconic songs of some of the biggest American names in music. I mean...

NORMAN: Yes.

LOUISE KELLY: ...you do a version of "My Baby Just Cares for Me," which is...

NORMAN: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LOUISE KELLY: ...of course, the song so closely associated with Nina Simone.

NORMAN: Of course.

LOUISE KELLY: Her signature song. Why did you pick that one?

NORMAN: (Singing) My baby just cares for, my baby just cares for, my baby just cares for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY BABY JUST CARES FOR ME")

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING, APPLAUSE AND LAUGHTER)

LOUISE KELLY: One performer who was a huge influence on you, I gather, is Duke Ellington. You include several works of his on this recording.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SOLITUDE")

NORMAN: (Singing) In my solitude...

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

NORMAN: (Singing) ...you haunt me...

LOUISE KELLY: Did you ever meet him? You must have known him, I assume.

NORMAN: No, I didn't.

LOUISE KELLY: No?

NORMAN: And somebody said look, there's Duke Ellington. And we simply stopped in our tracks and stared. And no one would have thought of going up to him and actually saying anything. It was enough just to know that that incredible spirit was actually walking across the road, and we could see him.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LOUISE KELLY: Hmm. You do a very flirty, very jazzy version of "Habanera," of course from "Carmen."

NORMAN: Yeah.

LOUISE KELLY: And I actually - let me play a little bit of this 'cause I want to talk to you about how you did it.

NORMAN: (Singing) L'amour. L'amour. L'amour...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HABANERA")

LOUISE KELLY: You're in your element there.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LOUISE KELLY: You sound like you're having fun.

NORMAN: (Singing) ...t'aime. Si je t'aime, prends garde toi.

LOUISE KELLY: Now, you have done that aria many, many times over the years...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NORMAN: Yes.

LOUISE KELLY: ...in places.

NORMAN: Yes.

LOUISE KELLY: Jessye Norman, you are now 65 years old.

NORMAN: No. No. No, my next birthday I will be 65.

LOUISE KELLY: Your next birthday. Well, we won't get ahead of it then.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NORMAN: No, let's not get ahead of it.

LOUISE KELLY: We'll give you the 64. Do you sing that aria differently now than you did at 24, 34?

NORMAN: Oh, but of course. I sing everything differently than I did 20 years ago or more. Life infuses one's thoughts on everything. And whereas, when I first started singing the Bizet, of course, I would no doubt have been rather more glued to the black dots on the page, and wanting to sort of be absolutely sort of in touch with what Maestro Ozawa and the orchestra in France was doing. And that we were all doing this at this same time together. But over the course time, I have become freer.

LOUISE KELLY: Hmm. What about, if I may ask the technical expression? Is there a point in the career of every great soprano where suddenly you realize, ugh, the high notes are getting harder to hit?

NORMAN: Because all of those things that one does with sort of the wonderfulness of youth, have to be done with perhaps technical thought a bit later on.

LOUISE KELLY: It sounds like part of the equation is by the time you're 64, you're wise enough to know how hard it is to hit the high notes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NORMAN: I think that if one is very lucky, one is wise about more than just high notes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN")

NORMAN: (Singing) Oh, when the saints go marching in...

LOUISE KELLY: Jessye Norman, thanks so much for stopping by.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN")

NORMAN: (Singing) ...the saints go marching in...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN")

LOUISE KELLY: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN")

NORMAN: (Singing) Oh Lord, I want to be in that number, oh when the stars begin to fall. Oh, when the sun drips down in blood. Oh, when the sun drips down in blood. Oh Lord, I want to be in that number...

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