Winstone/Gesing/Venier: Dance Without Answer (ECM 2333)

Dance Without Answer

Dance Without Answer

Norma Winstone voice
Klaus Gesing bass clarinet, soprano saxophone
Glauco Venier piano
Recorded December 2012, Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher

When a night black as coal
Placed a cloud in her soul.
Still she found the wings to fly
To the higher places…

When people compare something to a fine wine, they mean to say that its flavor deepens with age. But what of the color? It, too, changes, taking on new hues as light strikes the residuals of its enjoyment. This is more like what Winstone’s voice can do to her listener, who is but the glass to her vintage and through the prism of her words takes on something of their atmosphere. Indeed, here is an album that begs a fireplace, an upturned book, and shelter from a snowstorm.

Winstone has rarely sounded better than in the company of reedist Klaus Gesing and pianist Glauco Venier. On Dance Without Answer, she joins them for a third time on ECM. There has always been something therapeutic about Winstone’s music. It always seems to deal with coping, whether with joy or sadness, as expressed in the opening title track. The figure of Venier’s piano casts a long-drawn shadow like the body of Gesing’s clarinet. Their instrumental foundation bleeds through transitions from day to night, where truths and lies of love coexist as reminders of what might never be.

In spite of a thematic consistency, the moods of this trio are as varied as the linguistic colors of the titles. Winstone and her bandmates take the listener through the stark histrionics of “Cucurrucucu Paloma” (a portrait of abandonment) and the folkish “Gust Da Essi Viva” (filigreed by Gesing’s soprano) to the earthier “A Tor A Tor” (centered by a didgeridoo-like bass clarinet) and the evocative “Slow Fox” without lapsing into a single unnecessary detour. Yet Winstone shines brightest in the darkest places. In a wordless, raga-like style, she brings hope to “High Places” and follows what would seem to be the same female protagonist through the experiential dramas of “A Breath Away,” a remarkable lullaby that sets Winstone’s lyrics to a tune by Ralph Towner. And yet, while the poignant “It Might Be You” may seem to confirm its elusive presence—love in this album is an asymptote, so that even here she encounters the realization but not consummation of it.

Rounding out the set is a bouquet plucked from the popular canon. In Nick Drake’s “Time Of No Reply” Winstone mediates between realms of light and loneliness, while from Joe Raposo’s timeworn “Bein’ Green” she teases out visceral tenderness. Regardless of the words, she puts her all into each color change. But before Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” closes the album with a final survey of the palette, we also reckon with Madonna in the panoramic “Live To Tell” and Tom Waits in the bluesier “San Diego Serenade,” of which one line says it all: Never heard the melody ’til I needed the song. Prophetic words for those who never needed these songs until they heard the melodies, and a clue to the album’s name: the dance does have an answer, and it is the music itself.

(To hear samples of Dance Without Answer, click here.)

Norma Winstone: Stories Yet To Tell (ECM 2158)

Stories Yet To Tell

Norma Winstone
Stories Yet To Tell

Norma Winstone voice
Klaus Gesing bass clarinet, soprano saxophone
Glauco Venier piano
Recorded December 2009 at Arte Suono Studio, Udine
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Produced by Manfred Eicher

While walking home on 8 October 2014, I was listening to Norma Winstone’s Stories Yet To Tell on my iPod. The opening song, “Just Sometimes,” had already enchanted me with its tender traversal of the heart’s shadowed chambers. Its bittersweet emotions lingered on in my mind as the second track, “Sisyphus,” held my ears captive. Named for the Corinthian king of Greek mythology forced to endlessly roll a giant boulder up a hill, the song evokes the curse of repetition in Glauco Venier’s pianism and the vain hope of breaking free in the tension of Klaus Gesing’s bass clarinet. While immersed in the atmosphere of this music, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I pressed PAUSE, removed my headphones, and turned to see my friend Andy, who had terrible news: our dear mutual friend Taylan had committed suicide that morning.

In the weeks following this tragedy, my iPod remained stuck halfway through “Sisyphus,” stymied like my desire for listening. By the time I returned to the song, I couldn’t help read the myth into Taylan’s untimely end. His life, it seemed, had thrown one boulder too many in his path, and he’d grown tired of rolling them upward in vain. While learning to cope with my grief, I was also comforted by the album’s title. It was a gentle reminder that, although he was gone, stories of Taylan’s legacy as a musician (he was an electronics genius for whom Evan Parker’s The Eleventh Hour was a life-changing record) had yet to be told. It was only a month later that I had the courage to continue where I’d left off in “Sisyphus,” which will forever be for me an elegy.

It’s not entirely morbid, however, to read a certain understanding of mortality into Winstone’s craft, singing as she so often does of moments that are fleeting, captured only through imagination. In the sadness of “Among The Clouds,” the retrograde of “Goddess,” and the wordless farewell of “En mort d’En Joan de Cucanh,” Winstone and her attuned trio understand that directions below are written in scripts above. Each song searches for meaning in a world that so often denies the divinity of simplicity. Furthermore, Winstone’s lyrics, especially in “Rush” and “The Titles,” linger on impermanence and, like the second, break down the theatrical stage of experience into its component parts.

In a few tracks, Winstone uses her voice as wordless instrument, employing melodic flight paths in the service of folk songs and lullabies. And even when she does inhabit the domicile of language, as in the tender “Like A Lover,” she does so with an insightful balance of coarse action and empty heroism, all the while keeping fear at bay with the shapes of her mouthing. She demonstrates that those of us still living must recognize that death is not an end but the first sentence in a story waiting for the spark of remembrance to reveal its narrative arc.

(To hear samples of Stories Yet To Tell, click here.)

Taylan
Taylan Cihan
(June 13, 1978 – October 8, 2014)

Norma Winstone Trio: Distances (ECM 2028)

Distances

Norma Winstone Trio
Distances

Norma Winstone voice
Glauco Venier piano
Klaus Gesing bass clarinet, soprano saxophone
Recorded April 2007 Artesuono Recording Studios, Udine
Engineer: Stefano Amerio
Supervision: Guido Gorna
Editing and mixing: Stefano Amerio and Manfred Eicher
Produced by Manfred Eicher

German reedist Klaus Gesing and Italian pianist Glauco Venier join the ECM roster for the first time in an astonishing trio album with veteran singer and lyricist Norma Winstone. Whereas in her past efforts for the label Winstone used her voice as much as a melodic tool as an agent of song, here she steeps the listener in a richly textured feeling not experienced since her 1987 masterpiece, Somewhere Called Home.

“Distance” sets the stage not only thematically, but also musically. The tune is by Venier, whose gentle ostinato exudes an atmosphere that is as weightless as Winstone’s lyrics are gravid. The whispers of Gesing’s bass clarinet complete this portrait of a subterranean world run dry. A prologue to an album of prologues.

Venier further pens “Gorizia” and “The Mermaid.” The former is a halting and wordless waltz that dissolves like ink in water, while the latter is another lyrical bird’s nest. Winstone and Gesing respectively provide words and music for “Drifter” and “Giant’s Gentle Stride,” both adaptive verses that sweep through the composer’s gorgeous reed work with ease. Winstone deepens the circle in “Remembering The Start Of A Never Ending Story,” set to the music of pianist Hubert Nuss. What begins as a play of light and glass finds solace through the soprano’s wide-flung window. In the haunting “Ciant,” Winstone sings words by Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini to the tune of Erik Satie’s Petite Ouverture à danser, the peaks and valleys of which become interchangeable, each the yin to the other’s yang.

Winstone and her telepathic trio also reverse-engineer popular songs to an elemental sort of understanding. The Cole Porter chestnut “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” for one, pairs her and Gesing’s soprano to stunning effect. Moving like wings in concert, the duo reads the wind as Venier follows their birdlike shadow. Their version of Peter Gabriel’s “Here Comes The Flood” shines even brighter. Against a backdrop of palpable color, its celestial interpretations and earthly ruminations combine with the precision of a chamber music ensemble.

Finishing off the album’s eclectic stride is “A Song for England,” which finds the trio improvising on a Caribbean calypso, with words by Jamaican-born writer Andrew Salkey. The bass clarinet’s rhythmic support buoys a purely melodic Winstone before switching over to discernible lyric amid a shower of whimsy.

Distances is an album one wishes could go on and on. That said, its compactness offers plenty to rediscover on repeat listening. Combinations like this happen only rarely, and Winstone’s puzzle comes out of the box completed, glued together, and glowing with atmosphere. Hers is a voice that sings not because it must be heard by the world, but because it must itself hear the world. It speaks only of what it has known.

Norma Winstone: Somewhere Called Home (ECM 1337)

Norma Winstone
Somewhere Called Home

Norma Winstone voice
John Taylor piano
Tony Coe clarinet, tenor saxophone
Recorded July 1986 at Rainbow Studio, Oslo
Engineer: Jan Erik Kongshaug
Produced by Manfred Eicher

After her stunning contributions to ECM via the enigmatic outfit known as Azimuth, jazz vocalist Norma Winstone broke out, or should I say broke in, her solo career with Somewhere Called Home. Joined by pianist John Taylor and Tony Coe on clarinet and tenor saxophone, she lends her sympathetic draw to the canonic tree while also hanging it with her own lyric adornments to the music of Egberto Gismonti, Ralph Towner, and Kenny Wheeler. The finished session is burnished to a dim reflection of yesteryear.

From the first measured steps of “Café,” Taylor’s gentle snowflakes and Coe’s fluted reeds are perfect companions. This is a song, like so many, of people and places intersecting in romances as fleeting as the words they’re built upon. The title track is a geodesic shape of ebony and ivory, splashed with the prismatic light of Winstone’s lilting phrasings. Patterns of loneliness emerge, seeking in the human voice the solace from which our pain also arises, and through which we purge the very same. Taylor and Coe run off, hand in harmonic hand, rushing through the wilds of memory, leaving Winstone to paint the veil of winter in “Sea Lady” with a translucent river of spring, where love flows into an ocean of forgetfulness. “Some Time Ago” opens with a mournful cry from Coe, dropping us talon-first into a sky of childhoods. Every chord from Taylor is a wisp of cloud, gone too soon in a dragon’s breath. Winstone spins the mythology of love into a jewel of hope that shines only in the sunlight of the future. She waits, breathing in the world so that she might exhale the promise of another morning, of another kiss, of another embrace. The delicate impressionisms of “Prologue” and “Out Of This World” recall at once the French symbolists and Manuel de Falla’s Psyche. Coe enchants with every flap of his virtuosic wings, lending his ethereal tenor to “Celeste.” This bittersweet exploration of songcraft catches up to us like an ancestral figure. Every breath of the sax is like that figure’s movements, by turns flesh and shadow, and brought to active life by the erosion of the high note, which chips away like a welding torch at the resolve of our solitude. “Hi Lili Hi Lo” takes comfort in the fact that in order to fall in love, one must jump, blindfolded, from a great height indeed. With “Tea For Two,” we at last get the assurance of a lover’s arms cradling not just our bodies, but also our souls. That gorgeous tenor returns for a final heave, ending where it all began, folded in the origami of time.

Winstone washes away the clothing of every sentiment, exposing the naked flesh of words. Her melodies swim in life’s tormented sea, compressing the universe into a salty teardrop of pure expression. While this date may not be for everyone, it is for me another candidate for inclusion in ECM’s Top 10. A profound, meditative masterpiece that will grow as you do.

Azimuth (ECM 1546-48)

Azimuth

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

Azimuth:
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.

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.


Original cover

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.


Original cover

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.


Original cover

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.