If there's a single accomplishment that can be attributed to ECM Recordsthough there are, of course, many in its 45-year historyit's that it welcomes unusual instrumentation with open arms, affording such collaborations the opportunity to grow, to evolve, and build a new language. From the pan-cultural CODONA Trilogy
(2009), which collected the three genre-defying recordings made in the late '70s/early '80s by Collin Walcott
, Don Cherry
and Nana Vasconcelos
, to Jon Balke
(2009), which collected, amongst others, Fourth World progenitor Jon Hassell
, Moroccan singer Amina Alaoui
and the 12-piece Baroque ensemble Barokksolistene for an epic recording that remains criminally overlooked to this day, ECM has consistently either been on the lookout for or made its own suggestions to combine musicians and instruments that might, on paper, seem to be anywhere from unorthodox to flat-out incompatible. That, more often than not, they are ultimately proved successful only bolsters the reputation Manfred Eicher
and his label have built for allowing imagination to fly, unfettered by conventional constraints.
A case in point is singer Norma Winstone's decade-old trio with pianist Glauco Venier and reed multi-instrumentalistbut largely, in this context, bass clarinetistKlaus Gesing
. First coming together for Chamber Music
(EmArcy/Universal, 2003), it was when the group began recording for ECM with the sublime Distances
(2008), followed by the equally sublime Stories Yet to Tell
(2010), that the trio began to garner the international acclaim it richly deserves. Dance Without Answer
continues the trio's winning streak, a collection of original music and covers that might be surprising, had the trio not already proven its ability to build repertoires drawn from disparate sources, ranging from Peter Gabriel and Erik Satie to Tom Waits.
Waits becomes, in fact, the trio's first external source to be drawn upon a second time, as they revisit "San Diego Serenade." As on Chamber Music
, the gritty avant-songsmith's bluesy ballad is a playful but gentle duo between WInstone and Gesing, but this time without the overdubbed bass clarinet parts. Instead, Winstone's soft delivery juxtaposes with the Gesing's singular combination of melodic counterpoint and percussive punctuation, with WInstone demonstrating subtle wit as she drops to an unexpectedly low register at the end of the line, "Never felt my heartstrings until I nearly went insane." The trio reiterates its playful side on a reading of The Muppets
often-covered "Bein' Green" that opens rubato, with time imperceptibly asserting itself on a song that features Gesing's soaring mid-song soprano saxophone solo, joined intimately with Venier's supportive and suggestive accompaniment.
As compelling and understated a lyricist as she is a singernever resorting to excess, but making every word and note she sings countWinstone has collaborated with fellow ECM stalwart Ralph Towner
before, but this is the first time this trio has adapted one of his compositions. In this case "A Breath Away"a lesser- known track from an overlooked album, Lost and Found
(1996)is reinvented from its origins as a solo guitar piece, with Venier acting as WInstone's sole accompanist until halfway through the song, when Gesing joins in on bass clarinet for a set-defining solo that manages to reflect Towner's unmistakable vernacular, even as the trio absorbs it into their own evolving vocabulary.
There are other standouts on Dance Without Answer
in fact, there's not a weak song amongst the bunch, making every song stand out in its own waybut Patrick Leonard and Madonna's "Live to Tell," brought to the trio by Venier after hearing Bill Frisell
's show-stopping version on Have a Little Faith
(Nonesuch, 1993), remains a highlight simply because, no matter who performs it, its heart is so immediately compelling that it's hard to imagine anyone spoiling it. But, again, Winstone, Venier and Gesing bring it into their sound world, turning it into the album's most dramatic track as WInstone delivers the lyrics with such pure depth and unadorned beauty that it's equally difficult to think of else doing them such clear and purposeful justice.
That Dance Without Answer
features absolutely no songs from the Great American Songbooka first for the trio, though its previous albums have all been light on that repertoire, instead favoring original material and songs from sources as diverse as Nick Drake, Maria Schneider
, 13th Century troubadour songs and Vince Mendoza
needn't suggest that it has deserted it entirely. Instead, it suggests that WInstone, Venier and Gesing simply look for good music wherever it livesan aesthetic that perfectly matches Eicher and ECM's modus operandi
and one that makes Dance Without Answer
another milestone in a series of fine recordings from this unusual but thoroughly captivating trio.