In conversation with norma winstone

by Stuart Nicholson

Norma Winstone is one of the great jazz vocalists not simply because she is so obviously accomplished in what she does, but the sheer range of her singing embraces everything the jazz vocalist can be called upon to do. Yet no single aspect of jazz singing can be said to be central to her style; she is an interpreter of the American Popular Song par excellence, but she is not a standards singer; she can scat masterfully but she is not a scat singer and she is a brilliantly imaginative free jazz singer but she is not a free jazz musician. Her sight-reading skills have frequently been harnessed to provide a wordless tone color in both small groups and large ensembles; she has explored vocalese; she has worked with electronics and she has explored abstraction and collective improvisation with singers Urzula Dudziak and Jay Clayton (and later Michele Hendricks) in Vocal Summit. She has sung with unusual combinations of instruments and she has sung with orchestras and big bands and she has sung a cappella. Whatever the context, her performances have been both distinguished and distinctive.

Norma Winstone

Much has been written about the voice-as-an-instrument, but in Norma Winstone’s case, it is fair to say she is a brilliantly imaginative jazz musician whose instrument is her voice. Her style represents one of the first independent developments of jazz vocal technique beyond the borders of the United States.

Norma Winstone won a scholarship to study piano and organ for three years at Trinity College, London. In 1965 she began singing with jazz groups, her emergence on the UK jazz scene coinciding with a period of remarkable creativity in British jazz that saw composer, arranger and bandleader Mike Westbrook top the composer’s category and John Surman the baritone saxophone and soprano saxophone categories of the “Talent Deserving Wider Recognition” section of the annual Down Beat Critic’s Poll in 1969.

However, it was also a period that was overshadowed by Beatlemania, the explosion of pop culture and the massive popularity of groups such as the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Animals and the Spencer Davis Group. Yet British jazz of this period was by not entirely swamped by events going on elsewhere; the vibrant scene around Ronnie Scott’s club (both the “old” and the “new” Ronnies’), the more blues based Flamingo Club and the free jazz scene around the Little Theatre Club left a legacy of imaginative and original music that even today is not fully appreciated, even within the United Kingdom itself.

It was into this milieu that Norma Winstone stepped, first attracting attention when she supported the Roland Kirk group at Ronnie Scott’s. She was soon figuring in some of key UK jazz ensembles of the day such as the New Jazz Orchestra, where she came to the attention of the band’s pianist Michael Garrick in 1966. Invited to join his sextet, she can be heard using her voice as a front-line instrument on albums such as The Heart is a Lotus (1970), Home Stretch Blues (1972) and Troppo (1974) which number among the finest albums in British jazz.

She also performed free jazz with drummer John Stevens at the Little Theatre Club, in London, a small room up four flights of stairs in the West End of London that was virtually the headquarters of the London free jazz scene. Here, alongside the likes of Kenny Wheeler, Evan Parker, Paul Rutherford and Trevor Watts she was performing with some of the most adventurous musicians of the day.

In 1970 she invited by Mike Wesbrook to perform with his big band, and can be heard on Love Songs (1970) and the classic Metropolis (1971), a brilliant achievement from an ensemble that was virtually a who’s who of British jazz of the period. She also performed on Kenny Wheeler’s Pause and Think Again (1971) and with musicians such as John Surman, Joe Harriot, Michael Gibbs and John Taylor, and, as her reputation spread, leading European musicians, radio big bands and orchestras.

In 1971 she was voted top singer in the Melody Maker Jazz Poll and made her recording debut under her own name with Edge of Time, which although has been long deleted was re-released as a CD on the Disconforme label. After almost a decade of diverse work that embraced virtually every aspect of contemporary jazz, she and her then husband, pianist John Taylor, formed the group Azimuth with Kenny Wheeler. They made their debut on the ECM label with Azimuth (1977), and went on to make a further four albums. Described by Richard Williams in the London Times as, “one of the most imaginatively conceived and delicately balanced of all contemporary chamber jazz groups,” they set new standards in group interaction and opened up new ground by combining jazz and minimalism and ambient sounds a decade before they were fashionable. “It was a group that was ahead of its time,” Winstone says. Their first three albums have recently been released as three album box-set by ECM.

She has also appeared on ECM recordings under her own name, her Somewhere Called Home is considered a classic, and on ECM recordings by the likes of Kenny Wheeler and Eberhard Weber. If diversity was a hallmark of her early career, then it has continued to this day. In 1992, in collaboration with composer/arranger Steve Gray, she created A French Folk Song Suite (based on the Songs of the Auvergne by Canteloube), which she performed by the North German Radio big band. When she wrote the lyrics for pianist Jimmy Rowles’ composition “The Peacocks,” Rowles approved them, leading their collaboration on Well Kept Secret, an album of beautiful, lesser known standards in 1993. Other collaborations include those with Fred Hersch, Gary Burton and Steve Swallow as well as UK jazz greats such as Stan Tracey and Bobby Wellins.

In recent times she formed a musical association with the Italian pianist Glauco Venier and the Austrian saxophonist and bass clarinettist Klaus Gesing which has seen her return again to the ECM label with the release of Distances. In the liner notes, the trio talk about their use of baroque counterpoint which they say is as musically relevant as New Orleans heterophony or folk music or free playing. These elements are thoughtfully juxtaposed under the overarching language of jazz to produce a unique album that opens a new chapter in Norma Winstone’s distinguished career.

I know you have no shortage of American admirers, so I thought it would be interesting to retrace some of the highlights of your career because few singers have covered such a diverse range of styles as you. I think your break came on the mid-1960s with the New Jazz Orchestra that led to your joining Michael Garrick’s group?

That’s going back! I had been singing in this club in the East End of London, that turned out to be owned by the Cray Twins [notorious London gangsters], just so that I could sing. I had this little group and I had used to book a guest each week, and one week [trumpeter] Ian Carr was the guest and after he heard me sing he said, ‘I should introduce you to Neil Ardley and you should sing with the New Jazz Orchestra.’ So he did that, and Michael Garrick was on piano.

Michael gave me some songs he had written and I took them away and learned them and I went along to a sextet gig that he had, and he said, ‘Would you like to sit-in and sing one of the songs?’ I did that and he said, ‘Well, don’t sit down, stay on and join in the next piece.’ Well the next piece had no words, it was just like a one chord raga piece, and I just sang on it. At the time his front line was Art Themen and Ian [Carr] – that was before [trumpeter] Henry Lowther joined – and Jim Phillips [on tenor saxophone]. And Jim was leaving for some reason so Michael said, ‘Would you like to join and take over and sing Jim’s saxophone parts?’ So I did.

Around this time you were also involved in the free jazz scene around drummer John Stevens in the Little Theatre, which I don’t think is that well known.

Probably not. The free music scene with John Stevens was where I met Kenny [Wheeler], that was a learning thing. I had no idea what I was doing! But he’d get me along to sing and there’d be Dave Holland on bass, just before he left to join Miles Davis, there’d be all kinds of musicians there. We’d just make music and I liked the idea of that but eventually I felt I couldn’t really control it, too many people involved, and as a voice you’re at the mercy of everything else, you can’t really control too much – not that I wanted to control – this was at the Little Theatre Club where they all came to play in London, all the Young Lions from all over the place.

Even at this early stage of your career you were covering an incredibly diverse range of music.

I was improvising and I had worked with standards and I’d improvise with different words and melody and then I did some scat singing, but it wasn’t like Ella’s scat singing, because I felt those syllables would sound wrong from coming from me, an English person, they wouldn’t sound right. So when I sang these things with Michael [Garrick] I had never heard anybody sing that kind of material before, and he was very interested in words, in literature, and he had things with words but I had no influences about how to sing them, or how I should sound.

Norma Winstone

Before then I always listened to people like Ella, Sarah Vaughan, Sinatra of course, from when I was a child, Sinatra and Lena Horne – I loved Lena Horne’s way of singing – so suddenly I was singing things which there was no precedent for, if I had an American accent before, then when I was singing with Michael [Garrick] I lost it, because why do you need an American accent? These were English songs, English words, and that started me trying to find out who I was and what I could do.

I remember the liner notes for the Gilles Peterson Impressed Vol. 2, a collection of modern jazz highlights from Britain during this period, where you said that when you sang “Will You Walk a Little Faster” with the Neil Ardley Orchestra, using lyrics from a poem in Lewis Caroll’s Alice in Wonderland, and there was much discussion about whether you sang “dance” with an American pronunciation or an English pronunciation.

Cleo [Laine] always sang with an English accent, but it was still a little bit new. America rules the whole of jazz so these kind of things, setting music to English poems, they had no time for it on the American side of things.

You also sang with many key British ensembles of this period, not least those led by Mike Westbrook, Mike Gibbs, John Warren, Neil Ardley and Kenny Wheeler, of course, and contributed to several classic albums from this period. But could we move on to Azimuth, which many people, not least yourself, have said was a group ahead of its time.

Azimuth started out just as John Taylor [on piano] and me. It was at a time when recording companies started cutting down their jazz content [in the mid-1970s], but Kenny Wheeler had recorded for ECM, he had recoded Gnu High, and had asked for John to do it, but Manfred [Eicher, boss of ECM] said ‘I think you should do this with Keith Jarrett.’ So Manfred knew John’s name because of that, so we made a duo recording, John’s tunes, my words, with the idea of sending to ECM.

The night before John went to see ECM he was playing around with this new synthesizer he had just bought and found some unusual sounds and made a loop and said, “Just improvise over that.” And he recorded it as well and that was thing that Manfred latched onto immediately, he said, “Yes, I can hear a flugelhorn with the voice.” I think he heard something he could do something with. And that is the piece that ended up being called Azimuth.

But when we went to record it, it had no title, so we recorded it, and left the session with no name for the piece and no name for the group. And Manfred said as soon as you get a title for that let me know. So we talked about it, John said it sounds like a journey, so he went into the thesaurus, and he found the word “azimuth,” and he looked it up in the dictionary and it means the arc from the zenith to the horizon and so he said we’ll call the track “Azimuth.” And Manfred said you should call the whole album Azimuth, and call the group Azimuth – it’s a good name!

You made your first album together in 1977, and this and The Touchstone and Depart have just been re-released by ECM as a three album box set. Here you use the voice-as-an-instrument, could you talk about your aesthetic underlying this approach, which I am sure young, aspiring vocalists would be fascinated to hear.

I was always using it as an instrument, in the 1960s with Kenny [Wheeler’s] big band, with Michael Garrick, I was an “instrument.” But I never thought of it as copying an instrument, I thought of it as a sound, which is what it is. Why can’t a voice be used as a texture? I could never see why some people didn’t like the idea of it, it’s a whole interesting world, I like singing words too, but I don’t see why you’ve always got to sing words. I don’t know how it developed really – Kenny’s, Michael’s, John’s compositions.

So by the time of Azimuth, we were all very used to each others playing, but there was no real rehearsal. We used to get together if there was something coming up, but we used to laugh about it because we didn’t really “rehearse,” we just played. John might go off into a free thing and Ken and I would think, “I wonder where this is leading?” and we’d suddenly hear something, and “Ah, yes!” It was a wonderful group, really.

Your latest album Distances is your first ECM recording in a decade since you made your last album with Azimuth. Perhaps you could tell us about your association with Glauco Venier on piano and Klaus Gesing on bass clarinet and soprano saxophone?

Well, an agent in Italy called me, Andrea Morrini, who I think is Kenny Wheeler’s manager and John Taylor’s manager now, and said would I like to go and work with two local musicians? And I said no, I don’t really want to work with people I don’t know. Then he called back again, and he said they’ll play your music, just bring your own music, and anyway you know the piano player because you did a recording with him.

When he explained, I of course remembered the circumstances, because in-between takes [during this recording session] he would play some very unusual tunes from shows. And I thought, well, he’s not just an “avant garde” player. Andrea said he played with a saxophone player from Germany, they had a duo, and it was their idea to ask Andrea to get in touch with me. So I sent my music on to them, they were happy to play anything, so we did a concert and I could tell they didn’t mind taking chances, things happened and it was a really nice concert. I got a recording of it, and I said to Andrea I was really happy with that and let me know if anything else comes up.

A few other things came up and I said if you’re any good we should make our own recording with our own material otherwise we’re always going to be like a second-class Azimuth, or whatever. So they came out to my house for a few days to go through material, and we played through things, and we selected enough to make a recording. Some pieces I wrote were without words at that stage, and we recorded these tunes in this studio where I had met Glauco in the first place. We had difficulty in finding someone to take the album, but Klaus found someone in Universal in Austria who liked it and put it out, but only in Austria, where we had some concerts.

By coincidence, Manfred Eicher was listening to the radio and heard Klaus being interviewed late at night and they played one or two tracks from our album. It so happened that Manfred had begun using the same studio where we had recorded this album. Enrico Rava introduced him to it. So Manfred began going there and they brought Glauco in, who is a good friend of the recording engineer to translate, and while he was there Manfred said “Who are you?” and Glauco said “I’m the local piano player, I often play with a saxophone player called Klaus Geesing” And Manfred said, “I heard him on the radio he’s made a record with Norma Winstone and a piano player,” and Glauco said, “Yes, that piano player is me!” And Manfred said, “You should have brought that to me.” So Glauco told me this.

However, there had been a bit of a falling-out between Klaus and Glauco. One is very Italian and the other is very German, they are really great friends, but there seemed a chance that the group might not continue. They seemed as if they were not that keen for personal reasons to work with each other any more. So I thought I’ll take a chance here, a last ditch attempt to keep things together, so I picked up the phone and rang ECM. I spoke to Steve Lake, and explained Manfred expressed an interest in recording us, we were hoping to make a new recording, and if he’s interested could he call me? I put the phone down and ten minutes later Manfred rang saying he wanted to record it! So I phoned Klaus and Glauco and said, “We’ve got an opportunity to record for ECM, do you want to do it?” That made a difference to Klaus and Glauco. Suddenly they were able to deal with their differences!

This recording is perhaps more of a “songs” ensemble than Azimuth, and although you do revisit the voice-as-instrument on “Gorizia,” the album is very much a chamber jazz approach to songs with lyrics.

When it came to the recording date, Manfred was ill. I had heard a rumour he was ill, and I thought he was going to cancel. So we spoke on the phone and he said, “I don’t want to cancel, just go ahead and do what you want.” He was at the mixing, though, where you choose what goes onto the record, and you get down to the sound, the finished sound which he’s brilliant at. Listening to Distances some people may get the impression we play all slow pieces in live performance, but we don’t. It’s just that those were the pieces that Manfred thought would work best on the recording. That’s where Manfred is very clever, I think, he sees something as a whole package.

Perhaps you could take us through some of the songs on the album, a mixture of originals with your lyrics, poems adapted to songs and standards.

Glauco is very keen on folk music from Udine, the area where he lives in Italy, and with Klaus they play some folk tunes which he had re-harmonized, and there was one I particularly liked, and I mentioned it, and he said we could try and do it as a trio. That’s “The Mermaid.” The tune was originally the name of a fishing village not far from where Glauco lives, and I had that kind of image in mind, and that was the inspiration for the words. He had another piece which he had written about the area called “Gorizia,” but without words, I couldn’t think of words for that, so we did it without words. Then there was one piece, “Petite Ouverture á Danser” by Satie and we were going to do that without words and suddenly Glauco said, “I’ve found this wonderful Pasolini poem and it fits the tune!” It’s called “Ciant” [on the CD] and it fits, and I’m really happy about this, I like folk music but it doesn’t come out like folk music. And then Klaus composed quite a lot, we did a few of his pieces but not all got onto the album, but I think they probably needed more work.

Norma Winstone

Before the session, they had come over to the house and brought various things and I suggested one or two pieces, like the Peter Gabriel piece, they hadn’t heard that, “Here Comes the Flood,” I played them that and they really liked it. As soon as I heard a tune by Klaus called “Fly Spanish Fly” I thought that could be a song. It’s going to be difficult because it’s a very, very long melody and doesn’t resolve for a long time, but immediately I knew there were words that would come out from it, which is the way I approach lyric writing, I just find the words that are in there, and that is called “Drifter.” Then Klaus had done a Coltrane project in Vienna which I sang, I wrote some words to things he had set, including “Giant Steps” but he had written this bit that starts and ends it, we liked it and decided to record it and call it “Giant’s Little Stride,” and Manfred liked it, so that was included on the album. “Every Time We Say Goodbye” was a song Klaus and I had planned to do as an encore that night in Vienna. So we began [on the record] as a duo but let Glauco come in where he felt like it.

We all agree that to do standards you need to freshen them up. It helps your interpretation if you can make them fresh for you – perhaps you re-harmonize slightly or don’t do it in the obvious way, just taking away the piano in the beginning and inferring the harmony in the beginning and playing very open harmony so you don’t actually know what it is at the beginning. Whatever. I always need this sort of thing when I’m singing anything really. I like to be thrilled by something, or “what is that?” Or even “where am I?” It helps, I think. I don’t know if it helps the outcome, but it helps me! I feel better about it that way, it works for me.

We are all the sum of our experiences, and perhaps you could end by taking a look back over your long and distinguished career and perhaps explain how your life’s experiences are reflected in, and have contributed to, Distances.

A nice easy question! Well, I love the Miles Davis groups and Herbie Hancock, wonderful, a big influence really, the why they sounded. The Miles group with Herbie, Ron Carter, Tony Williams and Wayne Shorter, I saw them and I’d never heard anything like it, the way they improvised, it was just a real inspiration. In fact, the group Miles had when he recorded Kind of Blue that was a terrific influence on me, I loved it so much I played it over and over again, and it made me think I’d like to be involved in that music.

That made me think of how I’d like to be involved in the music. For example, if you just came along and sang a standard, and the band improvised in the middle and you sang the song again at the end, it didn’t feel to me like you were being really involved in the way I’d like to be involved. At the time I had no idea how I could achieve what I wanted but I thought if I find unusual material, or find somebody who could write words to pieces like “So What” maybe that may be a way of being a bit more integrated into the music. And I feel as if I have achieved that, even when I sing now I feel as if I am integrated into the performance. I never feel I’m out front and Klaus and Glauco are accompanying me. That’s what I have always wanted to do, and I’ve come back to singing songs, which I have always done, which I love, but that’s not the limit of it. Anybody, as long as your ear is good enough, can be involved in the process of making music more deeply and by various paths and I feel I have done that. It’s because I love the music, that’s what’s driven me, a passion for making music, and that’s really been my concern. It has never occurred to me not to do things that attract me for any reason.

Norma Winstone, thank you for being’s guest.

Thank you.


July 14, 2008 · 3 comments

  • 1 Ed Goodstein // Jul 14, 2008 at 03:53 PM
    Thank you so much for this great interview. I'm very glad that after 40 years of high achievement and 'exploration,' Winstone is finally getting some serious attention-- or at least here in the USA. I can't say I think 'Distances' is my favorite album by her. But it's another very solid and lovely work and glad it has been a vehicle for her to get that attention. Also, I found very interesting her comments about how her music developed and her various music associations were formed. Thanks!!
  • 2 David Engel // Jul 15, 2008 at 11:16 PM
    I adore Norma. She is marvelous. I've listened to her for many, many years and think she is one of the greatest singers of our time. I was fortunate enough to have heard her here in Maryland at An Die Musik a couple weeks ago. Her performance, primarliy from the new recording Distances, was superb. I met Norma after the concert and can tell you that she is as lovely as she is talented and her voice beautiful. I look forward to hearing her and seeing her again.
  • 3 Sabine // Apr 27, 2009 at 01:21 PM
    Hello, I am searching lyrics and chords (piano) of "Somewhere called..." for my daughter but can't find anything. Please help me..