Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Refinement: Norma Winstone's Dance Without Answers

Vocalist Norma Winstone (Photo by Petra Kemper)

There are some artists that defy explanation and description. Vocalist Norma Winstone is one of them. Considered by many as the “singer’s singer” the British chanteuse will probably never enter the mainstream and, considering her history, most likely prefers to seek out her own artistic path. But with the release of her new album, Dance Without Answers (ECM), she may well enter the mainstream on her terms, rather than make the compromises many singers; many female singers have to make to be successful. Namely repertoire. Winstone has often avoided the pitfalls of category by writing her own words and music and by being highly selective regarding standards in the jazz idiom.

Winstone was born in Bow, East London in 1941 and started singing professionally in the late 60s. I first heard her with trumpeter/composer Kenny Wheeler on an ECM album called, Azimuth (1977) that included her husband, the great John Taylor on piano, so Winstone has certainly preferred the accompaniment of keyboard and horn in most of her recordings. She's a singer who doesn't need to be crowded by a rhythm section preferring the intimacy of a well-tuned piano and woodwinds. Yet her new release features three pop songs that are surprise choices: “Everybody’s Talkin” by Fred Neil, “Bein Green” by Joe Raposo and Madonna’s “Live To Tell”, the latter of which I never would have expected. But taken within the context of the album, these three songs, along with five originals, make for a wonderful musical experience. The record is also enhanced by the inclusion of two remarkable songs: “Time Of No Reply” by Nick Drake and “San Diego Serenade” by Tom Waits. The Nick Drake tune was originally written for Five Leaves Left in 1968. It didn't make the final version of the album. So Winstone actually chose an outtake that was reissued in 1986. It's a fine choice and nicely rendered by the trio.

"San Diego Serenade" is from Tom Waits's 1975 release, The Heart of Saturday Night, and Winstone's performance is full of humour and just enough sentiment to make for another fine cover of a Waits song to the catalogue. Part of its success is due to the performance featuring Winstone and Klaus Gesing, bass clarinet. This track, like the other cover songs on the record, is beautifully re-imagined. (Glauco Venier plays piano on all the other tracks) On top of those beautifully rendered songs, Winstone also includes a tune from the hit movie Tootsie, called “It Might Be You”, with music by Dave Grusin and lyrics penned by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. It could be considered a compromise but taken in the context of the album, a perfectly good choice. That’s because Dance Without Answers is a thematic work about what it means to be “alive” and where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Winstone's confidence in spite of the vulnerability of playing without a bassist or drummer is a musically informed choice in my view. I think Norma Winstone is a vocalist with a complete understanding of her abilities and now at 72 years-of-age, is at the top of her form. It's impossible to find faults on this, the trio’s third album, because it succeeds in reaching higher artistic goals with an even greater degree of ease and musical beauty. One of the most refined recordings you'll ever hear.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra.

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