For some, the most intimate setting of choice is the duo. For Norma Winstone, while working in larger groups over the past five decades, her recorded history with ECM suggests that this British vocalist's preferred setting is the triospecifically one with piano/keyboards and a wind or brass instrument. From the minimalism-meets-improvisation of Azimuth to the more overtly song-based Somewhere Called Home (ECM, 1987), Winstone has been the definition of subtlety. Capable of singing complex melodies that would challenge most with their unorthodox intervals, Winstone's approach to interpretation has always favored nuance over unnecessary technical displays.
Eschewing conventional scatting, when Winstone uses her voice as an instrumentalal equal with her band mates, it's integrated on a deeper levelmore about exploring the essence of song than "look-at-me" demonstrations. Distances is not the first recording Winstone has made with German reedman Klaus Gesing (here playing soprano sax and bass clarinet) and Italian pianist Glauco Venier, but it's a largely word-based alternative to Chamber Music (Universal, 2004), where her lyric-less vocals meshed with the more solo-filled approach of Gesing and Venier.
Winstone, Gesing and Venier explore songs ranging from original compositions to Cole Porter, Hubert Nuss and Peter Gabriel. "Ciant" is an innovative expansion of composer Erik Satie's spare and beautiful "Petite ouverture a Danser," with Winstone singing Pier Paolo Pasolini's poem, "Ciant da Lis Ciampanis," in its original language (Friulian, a Romantic language from northeastern Italy) with remarkable authenticity.
The trio's spacious approach is similar to that of singer Susanne Abbuehl, whose Compass (ECM, 2006) also avoided conventional form with a less-is-more approach to collective interpretation. Porter's "Every Time We Say Goodbye," amongst the most ethereal on record, opens with Gesing's soprano a cappella. Winstone enters with the familiar melody and words, Gesing winding in and around her serpentine-like. As Venier joins in the changes emerge gradually, his economical approach allows for greater temporal elasticity. Like Abbuehl, Winstone's vibrato is used sparingly, making it all the more effective.
"Giant's Gentle Stride," based on John Coltrane's classic "Giant Steps," bears little resemblance aside from the melody; Venier's changes and the more subdued tempo distanced completely from the typical "proof of chops" approach taken by most. Even when Venier steps up the energy for one of Gesing's few delineated solos of the set, it's still about finding the melody within those changes.
With Distances, Winstone has finally found a working trio that, while speaking with its own voice, rivals Azimuth's ability to deconstruct music, creates a surprisingly rich landscape with the most minimal of instrumentation and renders profound the slightest dynamic shift. Winstone's delivery of Gabriel's "Here Comes the Flood," while referential, strays from its melody with understated interpretation, not melodramatic bravado.
With a clear intention to create an integrated soundscape despite each voice being distinctly impressive, Distances is a rare vocal album rooted clearly in the tradition, but which transcends it through a collective exegesis where the whole clearly exceeds the sum.
Personnel: Norma Winstone: voice; Klaus Gesing: soprano saxophone, bass clarinet; Glauco Venier: piano.