Azimuth: “How it was then…never again” (ECM 1538)

“How it was then…never again”

Norma Winstone vocals
John Taylor piano
Kenny Wheeler trumpet
Recorded April 1994 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Even at rare lackluster moments, the sporadic ruminations of vocalist Norma Winstone, pianist John Taylor, and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler never fail to grow in a depth of sound and color few trios can match. Yet Azimuth, as the group came to be known, was more than a triangular configuration, but a multifaceted statement on music as shapeable material. This exhumation of twilit pasts begins in “How It Was Then,” a survey of long-forgotten cotton fields bowing to the winds of passage. Stars open and close—each an eye on the verge of tears—to the rhythm of Taylor’s string patter. Such evocative touches abound throughout the session, paving stretches of empty road in “Looking On” and stirring up dizzying articulations in “Whirlpool.” As on previous Azimuth outings, Wheeler remains the voice of reason, foiling Winstone’s apparitional poetics with solid chromatics. He is the keystone of “Stango” (Stanko + tango?) and glows in his multitracked rendering of “How Deep Is The Ocean.” For her part, Winstone goes wordless in foggy scenes like “Full Circle,” but always with the tender signatures of Taylor’s plush commentary close at hand. Bobo Stenson’s “Mindiatyr” drops another nod to the ECM matrix, building careful reminiscence and holding us as the mind would cradle a memory. Because it feels so much like an ending, the fibers of “Wintersweet” that follow weave a cloak of epilogue and reprise Winstone’s gorgeous lyrics at the fore.

How it was then… is a genealogy of emotions and places, a tale of winter blooms that hook their stamen onto errant sunrays and uproot themselves into weightless life. Though not as essential as earlier work, it waits all the same with bated breath and open arms.

Azimuth: Azimuth ’85 (ECM 1298)

Azimuth ’85

John Taylor piano, organ
Norma Winstone vocal
Kenny Wheeler trumpet, fluegelhorn
Recorded March 1985 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The equivocal trio known as Azimuth will forever be one of ECM’s most profound. The combination of John Taylor’s pianism and Norma Winstone’s vocals alongside Kenny Wheeler’s soulful trumpeting was just what the 1980s needed to find solace in sound. Taylor’s heart is sure to still yours in “Adios Iony,” from which Wheeler and Winstone draw parallel threads before the slow persuasion of words begins to make itself heard:

…a boat rounds the bend…bearing down…
three herons stand their ground…swaying…
did you see them land?
moon behind branches…
suddenly bright, clear, frosty

Winstone paints her poetry in talk-singing before leaping into a pool of organ as Wheeler plays us out. “Dream” sleeps peacefully in loving vocal arms.

you and I in a vast deserted square
everything crumbles to the ground
facing you, I slowly slide into the chasm of your smile…

We feel blissfully lost, somehow grounded by love yet pushed ever forward beyond our wildest desires and into humbler shelters. The piano of “Lost Song” then looks us in the eye as if to speak the next title: “Who Are You?” The trumpeting here is liquid mercury. Like Siegfried’s bird, it is a floating commentator, hanging from the thinnest of threads pinched in forested fingers.

…funny to think of the children we were
memories we walked right through
but now you ask,
I’d have to guess that you feel lonely too…

Music and song walk hand in hand into the slow dance that follows. In “Breathtaking,” Winstone touches glaring heights with her vast internal power, drawing her throat into the refractions of a “February Daze.” The Steve Reichian consistency in the keys lends unusual urgency to the group’s ethereal sound, which only further blurs the snapshot rendered in “Til Bakeblikk.” The album’s elixir is made complete with two “Potions,” the second of which sits perched on the softly swinging bar of its aural cage, forever singing, forever wanting, and finding flight only in the concluding silence.

This is Azimuth’s zenith and another significant chapter of ECM’s backstory. It’s easy to see why this album never made it on to the 3-disc retrospective, for to do so would have risked diluting its value as a standalone artifact. Essential for many reasons, not least of all for Taylor, who plays as if he were holding an inanimate body in his hands, tracing its every contour until it comes back to life.

<< Chick Corea: Septet (ECM 1297)
>> Marc Johnson: Bass Desires (ECM 1299)

Azimuth (ECM 1546-48)

ECM 1546_48


John Taylor piano, organ, synthesizer
Norma Winstone voice
Kenny Wheeler trumpet, fluegelhorn
Ralph Towner 12-string and classical guitars

1. The arc of the horizon measured clockwise from the south point, in astronomy, or from the north point, in navigation, to the point where a vertical circle through a given heavenly body intersects the horizon.
2. A group made up of vocalist Norma Winstone, husband John Taylor on keyboards, and trumpeter/fluegelhornist Kenny Wheeler whose music, measured from any point, draws an arc through countless heavenly bodies before intersecting with the enchanted listener.

Azimuth was (and remains) emblematic of the ECM label, marking its timelines from 1977 to 2000 with a handful of indelible punctuations. The group’s characteristically expansive sound was overshadowed only by its utter commitment to the melodic line and the trustworthiness of its expression. In the three albums collected for this timely rerelease, the journeys upon which we are taken are the same as those taken by the musicians themselves. Such immediate correspondence is a rare achievement in any vertical circle, and is to be cherished for its productive honesty.

ECM 1099

Azimuth (ECM 1099)

Recorded March 1977 at Talent Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

The group that would become Azimuth began its journey on this self-titled album. “Siren’s Song” rests on the forgiving laurels of a repeated motif, gilded by a horn-flanked voice amid pianistic accents. Like a Steve Reich riff dropped in a pool of jazz, it treats the pulse as the animating force of its creation. Wheeler broadens Winstone’s palette in the melodic relays of “O.” The title track is buoyed by a stunningly gorgeous arpeggiator, over which Winstone sets to flight a pair of overdubbed birds. Once they have flown away, Wheeler draws between their pinpointed forms a sinuous trajectory, along which one is able to chart the album’s path with even more fluid precision. The synthetic backdrop builds in scope, turning what might otherwise be a repetitive New Age loop into an elegiac improvisational exercise. The plaintive piano introduction of “The Tunnel” extends this supportive electricity, into which Winstone begins to sow her potent words. Semantics trail off into further meanderings, reminiscent of the previous track, before the backdrop morphs into a stunning change of key. This makes “Greek Triangle,” a curious piece for brass, all the more whimsical for its appearance. Though outwardly incongruous, it breathes with the same focused spirit that animates the whole, thereby elevating it beyond the status of fanciful diversion. It also serves to refresh our palette for the lyricism of “Jacob,” in which Winstone’s braids and Wheeler’s fluid accents close an altogether fascinating mosaic of atmospheres.

<< Julian Priester and Marine Intrusion: Polarization (ECM 1098)
>> Keith Jarrett: Sun Bear Concerts (ECM 1100)

… . …

ECM 1130

The Touchstone (ECM 1130)

Recorded June, 1978 at Talent Studio
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

Azimuth’s second ECM effort is also the group’s most enigmatic. The organ that underlies “Eulogy” gives just enough air for Wheeler to glide, and injects all that follows with deep, warm breath. The trio writes a more intimate letter in “Silver,” answered in the unsteady penmanship of “Mayday,” over which our soloists take great care to dot every i and cross every t. The distant muted trumpets of “Jero” mesh with Winstone’s ambulatory menageries. Taylor draws a fluid line through their incantations, ignoring the periphery all the way to the end of “Prelude,” a track so lovely that it makes one want to listen to the album backwards. This is an elusive set, to be sure, filled with quiet, seething power, but also one that builds its nests comfortably over our heads. It can only fly, because it knows no other way to travel.

<< Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians (ECM 1129 NS)
>> Pat Metheny: New Chautauqua (ECM 1131)

… . …

ECM 1163

Départ (ECM 1163)

Recorded December 1979 at Talent Studios, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

For its third outing, Azimuth welcomed the strings of guitarist Ralph Towner. “The Longest Day” opens in Solstice territory, setting out through a drizzle of piano and 12-string. Winstone’s overdubs visualize gossamer veils of more distant storms, while Wheeler’s soulful trumpet shines like the sun beyond them. Winstone takes her voice to unexpected heights, pulling a banner of time across the sky into the contemplative piano introduction of “Autumn.” There is no falling. Rather, we get the stillness of those leaves before they die, hanging on with their last vestments of color as the winds arrive to shake them from their boughs. Winstone hangs words in the air amid Towner’s almost pianistic fingerings and Wheeler’s staccato cries. “Arrivée” is just that, but is one of many destinations in this sojourn. Incising solos leave their wounds, closed at last by the plasma of Winstone’s mellifluous protractions. This is followed by a quartet of so-called “Touching Points,” which further extrapolate vocal information from instrumental sources, and vice versa. Wordless fibers are at once spun and frayed in passages of intense physicality. Towner is put to improvisatory task, adding tentative yet appropriate ornaments of his own. The organ drone of the title track respires beneath Winstone’s dips into thermal bliss. Words spread their branches, wrought in tinsel and blown glass. The album ends with a reprise of “The Longest Day” for piano alone. Resplendent and far-reaching, it is a bittersweet ending to Azimuth’s most fully realized effort, through which the project honed its sound to an art.

Azimuth was one of ECM’s most deftly realized acts, and it continues to open like a slow cloudburst every time I immerse myself in it. Its malleable formula provides seemingly endless room for possibility. Winstone’s voice sparkles in the soft focus of consistently sensitive production, a slowly flapping bird with nowhere to go but up. She and Taylor are ideal partners, forging as they do a silent smolder of emotional bonds, while Wheeler heaves his own powerful feathers with conviction. The brief addition of Tower heightens their collective sound, even as it tethers them to the earth. This is a classic set of three seminal albums, each a movement in a larger suite, where souls can dance in motions so slow that they appear as still as ice, and are just as vulnerable to heat.

<< Sam Rivers: Contrasts (ECM 1162)
>> John Abercrombie Quartet: Abercrombie Quartet (ECM 1164)