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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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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")

Ms. JESSYE NORMAN (Opera Singer): (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...

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."

Ms. 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")

Ms. NORMAN: (Singing) My baby dont care to show. My baby dont care for clothes. My baby just cares for me.

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

Ms. NORMAN: Yes.

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

Ms. NORMAN: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

Ms. NORMAN: Of course.

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

Ms. NORMAN: Well, I chose the songs that everybody would recognize. So why not? I dont believe in standing on the sidelines and sort of seeing whether or not something is going to work. I believe in sort of jumping into it, and enjoying it and this is exactly what we do with this presentation.

(Soundbite of song, "My Baby Just Cares for Me")

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

(Soundbite of cheering, applause and laughter)

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")

Ms. NORMAN: (Singing) In my solitude...

(Soundbite of applause)

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

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

Ms. NORMAN: No, I didnt.


Ms. NORMAN: No, Im afraid I was too young and inexperienced at the time. But I did have the experience of seeing him walk across the road, sort of near the Cathedral of St. John the Divine when I was a student at Howard University, and had come to New York for something or the other that was being performed at St. John.

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)

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

Ms. NORMAN: Yeah.

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

Ms. NORMAN: Okay.

(Soundbite of song, "Habanera")

(Singing) L'amour. L'amour. L'amour...

KELLY: You're in your element there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KELLY: You sound like you're having fun.

Ms. NORMAN: Im having a great time.

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

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. NORMAN: Yes.

KELLY: places.

Ms. NORMAN: Yes.

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

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

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

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

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

Ms. 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.

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?

Ms. NORMAN: The high notes always hard to hit. I mean one has to understand how high notes even happen. The vocal cords have to vibrate so very, very quickly, and this takes a great deal of physical energy. And it makes perfect sense that it would become more of an effort, perhaps, to make sure that those notes are absolutely where they're supposed to be.

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.

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)

Ms. 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")

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

KELLY: That's Jessye Norman doing what she does - bringing the house down. She's just released her first solo album in a decade. It's called "Roots: My Life, My Song."

Jessye Norman, thanks so much for stopping by.

(Soundbite of song, "When the Saints Go Marching In")

Ms. NORMAN: My great pleasure. Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, "When the Saints Go Marching In")

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

KELLY: And you can hear more songs from Jessye Norman's new album at our Web site,

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Mary Louise Kelly.


And Im Renee Montagne.

(Soundbite of song, "When the Saints Go Marching In")

Ms. 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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