Saturday, September 18, 2010

Norma Winstone’s Stories Yet to Tell

Her band-members are Italian and German. Her repertoire includes traditional Friulan songs and Armenian lullabies. Yet, she is arguably the preeminent British jazz vocalist of our time, even honored with an MBE (Member of the British Empire) by the Queen. Still, if anything defines Norma Winstone it is the unalloyed artistry she brings to vocal interpretations, which can be heard to striking effect on her latest CD, Stories Yet to Tell.

Reuniting with pianist Glauco Venier and multi-reed player Klaus Gesing, her collaborators on Winstone’s Grammy nominated Distances, Stories has a similar overall spirit, yet it consistently yields up many fresh surprises. Theirs is an elegant, often delicate music perfectly represented by the opening track “Just Sometimes,” a spare ballad of regret and longing, setting Winstone’s original lyrics to the music of popular Mexican composer Armando Manzanero. Indeed, her delivery is strikingly dramatic, conveying a lifetime’s worth of experience in just over six minutes.

While always intimate, the mood shifts greatly with Tigran Mansurian’s arrangement of fellow Armenian composer Komitas’ “Cradle Song (Hoy Nazan),” featuring Winstone’s original lyrics derived from Christina Rosetti’s nursery rhymes. With Venier setting a gently insistent rhythm on the piano and Gesing’s eloquent bass clarinet accompaniment, it is a warm and inviting session highlight. The bittersweet vibe then returns in spades with Dori Caymmi and Alan & Marilyn Bergman’s “Like a Lover.” It is a perfect vehicle for Winstone’s exquisitely sensitive voice, again demonstrating the trio’s uncanny empathy.

Perhaps the greatest revelation of Stories is Winstone’s expanding role as a lyricist, penning words for eight of the CD’s twelve songs. Easily the most evocative is “The Titles,” a melancholy ode to cinema and those who love it, that ought to become a standard in its own right (recommendation to vocalists: check this one out).

Yet, on two of the session’s other hands-down standout tracks, Winstone proves she can make a statement without lyrics. Her voice harmonizes beautifully with Gesing’s soprano saxophone throughout Venier’s surprisingly jaunty arrangement of the traditional “Lipe Rosiže.” Likewise, Winstone’s wordless vocalizing expresses an audibly ecstatic joy throughout the pianist’s adaptation of Friulan classical-folk composer Giorgio Mainerio’s “Ballo furlano.”

Winstone is a true vocal artist, yet her relatively youthful trio-mates are perfectly in-synch with her throughout Stories (and their previous release Distances, as well). It is a subtle work that slowly seduces listeners with its grace. Highly recommended, especially for connoisseurs of intelligent vocal music, Stories is now available from ECM records.

(Photo: Glauco Comoretto / ECM Records)