Thursday, June 19, 2008

Distances from England

By Norma Winstone
ECM Records 2028

When Norma Winstone performs at Joe’s Pub next Thursday, it will be an opportunity to hear another European jazz artist who does not frequently perform in America. It will also be a pretty rare opportunity to hear a member of the Order of the British Empire in performance, since the MBE was bestowed on Winstone last year (when most of the Queen's Honours recipients were overshadowed by the Rushdie knighthood). Preceding Norma Winstone MBE to American shores, her latest CD, Distances, is itself an intimate listening experience.

The almost title track “Distance” establishes the dreamy mood right from the start through Winstone’s breathy vocals and the eerie accompaniment of Klaus Gesing on bass clarinet and Glauco Venier on piano. Winstone’s lyrics reinforce the sense of existential mystery, speaking of “weightless wanderers” “turning in heights of invisible air” above “a city of unfathomed streets below.”

Many of Winstone’s songs read like prose poems, but she also includes one standard and a pop cover. She wrings all the regret imaginable out of Cole Porter’s “Every Time We Say Goodbye,” underscored by Gesing’s plaintive soprano. A Peter Gabriel song again proves to be a surprisingly hospitable vehicle for reinvention in a jazz context. “Here Comes the Flood” is a beautiful example of Winstone’s subtle but dramatic vocal interpretation and the sympathetic support of Gesing and Venier.

Winstone’s band-mates are more than just hired accompanists. They really sound like a cohesive unit together, with the conceptions of each shaping the music of Distances. Gesing and Venier both penned music for two originals, and the three collaborated on a spontaneous composition. Venier’s “The Mermaid” probably exhibits the most buoyant jazz solo of the session provided by the composer, egged on by Gesing’s bass clarinet. While a bit at odds with Winstone’s mournful lyrics, it makes for an appealing interlude in her tale. Gesing also should get credit just for taking a soprano saxophone anywhere near “Giant’s Gentle Stride,” their reworking of Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and he actually solos quite eloquently.

Distances concludes with “A Song for England,” the trio’s impromptu calypso setting of an Andrew Salkey poem, which ascribes the neurosis of the English to their depressing weather. Simultaneously humorous and triumphant, it is a pitch-perfect post-modern national anthem. One could easily envision it running over the end titles of future British films to express both irony and affection.

Distances has a deceptively sparse atmosphere, from which many exciting musical moments unfold. It is an intriguing session that stays in your head long after listening. It is definitely a recommended CD, some songs of which are likely to be interpreted live by Winstone’s group, during two sets at Joe’s Pub on June 26th.