Norma Winstone: Distances (2008)
Those fortunate to have witnessed the magic between trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, pianist John Taylor and vocalist Norma Winstone may still cherish fond memories of the music they made from 1977 to 1995 for ECM under the Azimuth sobriquet.
Distances, Winstone's first recording for the German label in over a decade, sees her flanked by pianist Glauco Venier and reedman Klaus Gering. The comparison to Azimuth thus becomes inevitable. And, although opting for such a premise is quite unfair for her new acolytes, the project nevertheless proves an ersatz to something else, something memorable, something grand. Similarly immaculate in its performance, and as classy in its chamber-esque aesthetic, one finds this trio lacking Azimuth's sense of musical adventure and memorabilia.
Both trained under the aegis of the European Conservatory pedagogical system, Gening and Venier are flawless, rigorous instrumentalists. Winstone herself is contemporary jazz's vocal maiden. Her pure, virgin tone draws an appeasing, cozy bubble that can somewhat be akin to a soft, motherly embrace. Strong of a 40-year experience sharing the stage with England's wiliest freewheelers, Winstone retains a child-like innocence in her singing not found since the great Ella Fitzgerald. Although diametrically opposed in terms of style, both use their voice in an instrumental idiom and share a playful approach to performing.
Besides her obvious vocal qualities and charisma, a propensity for recording the occasional "little" tune from the Tin Pan Alley songbook conversely disserves the Londonian songstress. "Alice in Wonderland" on the brilliant Like Song, Like Weather (Endoc, 1999) sounded out of context, as did "Hi Lili Hi Lo" and "Tea For Two" on Somewhere Called Home (ECM, 1987). Here, Cole Porter's "Every Time We Say Goodbye"'s static melody and minimalist arrangement dulls the mood. Though minor, song selection clearly remains an issue.
The last four tracks are where things get more gripping. With Venier's muffled bass and harp-like string brushing, "The Mermaid" recalls the splendid rendition of "Lazy Afternoon" from Like Song.... For its neat dynamic and harmonic contrasts, Peter Gabriel's cataclysmic "Here Comes the Flood," is a most welcomed addition, as is the improvised calypso, "A Song For England." " Remembering the Start of a Never Ending Story;" a challenging melody by little-known composer Hubert Nuss, showcases Winstone's superior control, vocal range and overlooked talent as lyricist.
Not her best outing, Distances nevertheless finds Winstone in a great form and finally closes the gap on a long overdue return to the prestigious label. Now, if only Wheeler and Taylor could rejoin her...for the sake of nostalgia.
Track Listing: Distance; Every Time We Say Goodbye; Drifter; Giant's Gentle Stride; Gorizia; Ciant; The Mermaid; Here Comes the Flood; Remembering the Start of a Never Ending Story; A Song For England.
Personnel: Norma Winstone: voice; Glauco Venier: piano; Klaus Gesing: bass clarinet, soprano saxophone.
Record Label: ECM Records