Listening to vocalist Norma Winstone's Distances
is an entrancing experience. The concentration required to fully appreciate the music created by Winstone, Klaus Gesing (bass clarinet, soprano saxophone) and Glauco Venier (piano) is requested rather than demanded.
The performances are intimate and delicate, while at the same time possessing a distilled strength, embracing both sound and words, neither taking precedence. The space of the recording is enveloping in its sparseness, and the trio's individual timbres, when blended with the organic arrangements, produce an almost tactile sensation.
Music as art can be understood as using sound to control the space in which it is heard and the time through which it is experienced. The voice, being the most directly human instrument, can be a particularly effective communicator. However, words, as lyrics in the hands of a mere singer, can easily push the rest of music into the background.
Winstone, in her long association with Azimuth, also featuring pianist John Taylor and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, used her delicate and airy voice as one instrument among three to create pure music over five ECM albums from 1977 through 1995. The current trio, despite being basically the same makeup as Azimuth, performs mostly, with the exception of "Gorizia," in the realm of songs with lyrics.
However, even such familiar songs as Cole Porter's "Every Time We Say Goodbye" and Peter Gabriel's "Here Comes The Flood" are deepened, or perhaps expanded into their full inherent meaning. Winstone uses little vibrato with a voice that allows Gesing's reeds to penetrate within its space. Venier's rounded piano tone supports the other two, filling in the harmony while providing a spare and subtle pulse.
While material as familiar as the Porter standard or the Gabriel tune provides a base from which to judge one's reactions, the other tracks allow for the artistry of Gesing, Venier and Winstone to shine. Both of the instrumentalists are marvelous composers, while Winstone's lyrics read as poetry.
Each track offers its own rewards, but three stand out. The opening title tune, written by Venier with lyrics by Winstone, immediately sets the mood of the album in deep, intimate immenseness. The broken piano chords lay out the harmony as Winstone presents the words with a counter-line by Gesling.
"Gentle Giant's Stride," written by Gesing, is a homage to John Coltrane, based loosely on his tune "Giant Steps." The lyrics by Winstone touch on the essence of Coltrane's musical soul and his enormous influence. Gesing's solo does not imitate Coltrane, but is free as a bird.
The introduction to "The Mermaid," written by Venier marks it as an important musical statement. Winstone's lyrics float above the piano and clarinet during the first half and then Venier builds an impressive solo, continuously accompanied by Gesing.
While Winstone's voice naturally takes center stage, Distances
is a beautiful and moving example of a group sound and esthetic, with music that surrounds and transports.