Q&A with Norma Winstone: The Consummate Voice


The trio Norma Winstone (left) leads—which includes Glauco Benier and Klaus Gesing—has been augmented by a pair of supplemental players for the ECM album Descansado—Songs For Film.

(Photo: Glauco Comoretto/ECM Records)

Singer Norma Winstone is without peers when it comes to the chamber-jazz aesthetic. Emerging from the London scene of the 1960s and collaborating with, among others, Joe Harriott, John Stevens and Mike Westbrook in various-sized ensembles, it was with the trio Azimuth, formed in the mid-‘70s, that Winstone found herself in a more intimate chamber, so to speak. With pianist John Taylor and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler, Azimuth offered a highly improvised music, complete with Winstone’s voice, sung wordlessly and with her own lyrics.

Now, five albums in, her trio—formed in 2001—with pianist Glauco Venier and reed player Klaus Gesing has recorded Descansado—Songs For Film (ECM). The trio, selectively augmented by two others, offers songs that are rare if not obscure, including works by Ennio Morricone, Nino Rota and Madredeus, and, where needed, feature “filmic” lyrics by Winstone.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Why add percussionist Helge Andreas Norbakken and cellist Mario Brunello to the trio?

We had already done four albums as a trio, and we could have been alright with another one, but we thought it would be nice to ... really, the music dictated it.

How is the current trio more song oriented than Azimuth?

We haven’t really recorded very many things where I sing wordlessly with this trio. It seems to be more of a song-based group. But live, we tend to have more improvisation from me rather than singing lines. It wasn’t really a plan, it just seems to have happened.

I went through a period when I wasn’t singing very many words, and I used my voice much more as an instrument. But I really love words, since I started writing my own. But I still like the voice used as a sound as well. We did use words with Azimuth, but it was mostly John Taylor and Kenny’s compositions that I wrote words for. We tended not do anything outside that repertoire.

You recorded two versions of Michel Legrand’s “Vivre Sa Vie,” correct?

It was [producer] Manfred Eicher’s idea. It wasn’t one we were going to do. I suppose because we did one Michel Legrand piece [“His Eyes, Her Eyes”], he suddenly said, “Have you ever heard Legrand’s music for Vivre Sa Vie? And we hadn’t. He said it’s a favorite piece of film music, he loves it. So, after the first day’s recording, when this was mentioned, both Glauco and Klaus transcribed it from the internet overnight, and we recorded it the next morning. There’s a very brief version with only piano that Manfred decided to put at the very end.

Let’s talk about the origins of your singing style, where your sound came from.

When I heard Miles Davis and that great Kind Of Blue group, that music really struck me; it had a big affect on me. I felt there could be a voice in this kind of music, somehow; I never really heard anybody do anything like that. You know, most of the singers I heard were singing songs, singing standards. So was I.

It wasn’t about scatting.

No, I just imagined that the sound of the voice could be used in the way these instruments are being used—not necessarily improvising but just the sound. That’s what it is; the voice as a sound.

When you think of Miles Davis, you think of the sound of his instrument as a voice.

Yes, that’s a voice. Lots of jazz musicians are aiming for that.

Would you say your singing has evolved to become kind of like a non-lyric lyrical singing?

That might be a good description. I never thought of it like that, but, yes, I’m afraid it is.

All lyrics are filmic in that they describe a situation in a more definite way than music. That’s why I sometimes like not to use words, because lyrics make a composition very specific. When there are no words, you can think about anything you like as a listener.

With the writing of words, in this case, there are some words that are sometimes a color, not a storyline. But some of my words, they somehow come out of the atmosphere of the music. I love poetry, but when you write lyrics, you have to be a little bit more specific, and visual, so that people get an idea of what you’re trying to say when they first hear it.

The lyrics are trying to distill a feeling. The chords that Glauco plays on the [Bernard Herrmann] Taxi Driver theme are so dark, which is absolutely the feeling I was wanting for the words. The original soundtrack conveys it slightly differently; it’s perhaps a bit sleazy. My version and my words came from the darkness of the whole situation [of that story]. But at the same time, I never really wanted to be absolutely specific with the words; I want them to be a bit like the music, so they could be about something else. DB

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