Practice brings one closer to perfection. British singer Norma Winstone has enjoyed a very prolific 35-plus year career that has been divided among a number of recording labels. Her recordings with John Taylor and Kenny Wheeler in the form of the group Azimuth brought her international exposure and recognition. These formats were the unusual combination of voice, piano, and either horn or reeds. This spare instrumentation and arrangement qualifies what Winstone does as chamber jazz.
On her first ECM release in almost 10 years, Winstone returns to this spare format with pianist Glauco Venier and reeds player Klaus Gesing (both making their ECM debuts). The recording was committed in spacious confines that effectively expand the disc's sonics. This naturally separates the participants' individual sonic marks, efficiently deconstructing the music. This deconstruction does not harm the performance rather it brings into sharper focus each musician's contribution.
The perfect illustration of this is the free-Caribbean-Calypso "Song for England." Klaus Gesing establishes the tempo and tone with bass clarinet, weaving an island figure that is both simple and deliciously rich. Glauco Venier's piano compliments Gesing's vision, occasionally joining it in peppered unison. Winstone displays her tasteful vocal wares with worded and non-worded expression, finishing the piece as sunlight finishes a dry martini my shining through it.
But "Song for England" is only a prelude to a recital that includes a wonderfully unorthodox take on John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" and a completely (and beautifully un-tethered) "Every Time We say Goodbye." There are no other jazz vocal offerings that can compete with this finely refined collection (except for Winstone's previous recordings).
Distances may be an experiment, or a concept stripped down to its essence, fully elaborated. It may be art practiced at an unusually high level of capability or competency. What it is not, however, is just one more jazz vocal offering clotting and confusing an increasingly anemic jazz marketplace.
The vast majority of jazz vocal recordings released each year are good. A considerably smaller percentage might even be termed great. It is but a rarified number that can be considered exceptional. Distances is such a recording.
Personnel: Norma Winstone: voice; Klaus Gesing: soprano saxophone, bass clarinet; Glauco Venier: piano.