Album Review: Stories Yet to Tell, Norma Winstone

Stories Yet to Tell CD 6025 273 7426. Norma Winstone; vocals. Klaus Gesing; bass clarinet, soprano saxophone. Glauco Venier; piano.

Review by Alison Hoblyn, September 2010

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The edge of autumn seems a good time to release this collection that verges on the melancholic. Maybe I have to admit to a lack of objectivity as I am completely sucked into the story of this album. What strikes me is how integrated it is; that three artists were thinking as one. And it seems as though everyone who contributed understood the conclusion they wished to reach.

From the moment you look at the sleeve notes you encounter beautiful images that tell a story without words; not unlike some of the tracks, where Norma Winstone uses her wordless voice as an instrument to harmonise with piano and reeds. But that underplays the importance on this album of the words, which deserve to be heard. There is poetry in the lyrics that Norma penned for eight of the twelve songs.

The strong introductory song is Just Sometimes. It conjures for me a room in a crumbling mansion with a piano echoing in its dark corners. Memories are glimpsed in the half light. In the words of the song ‘…a window to the past is opened’ and the lyrics are highly evocative. When Norma’s voice enters it’s unhurried, the words hanging somewhere between being sung and being spoken. (Both voice and sentiment remind me of Peggy Lee singing Ready to Begin Again on her 1975 album, Mirrors.) There’s longing and warmth in Norma’s voice – here in the lower end of her register and infused with experience as she sings her own lyrics. On the line ‘I hear a distant train that’s going somewhere’, Klaus Gesing’s bass clarinet replicates the glancing noises as a train slides past near objects. Yet, with his unique technique, sometimes the low vibrations of his instrument are almost double-bass like.

Norma’s voice lightens for the opening of Cradle Song, a reworked folk-tune with words by Norma and some borrowed from Christina Rosetti. The piano theme, rocking as a cradle, underpins the gentle mix of words and Norma’s distinctive wordless improvisation, which is in turn echoed by clarinet. The album title comes from a line here; ‘In the lane, steady rain, stories to tell yet.’ There’s just enough of a hint of menace outside the nursery not to make this a pink and pearly song but one that points to the brevity of life. In Rosetti’s words ‘What are heavy? sea sand and sorrow/What are brief?today and tomorrow/What are frail? spring blossoms and youth:/What are deep? the ocean and truth’. Quite a few of Norma’s deft lyrics on this album reflect on summer going, chill winds, time passing. Maybe that’s partly because she’s recently become a grandmother. Not that you’d know it, pictures of her looking distinctly glamorous and Helen Mirren-like adorn the sleeve notes. She’s finding new depths in autumn. And perhaps it’s because I always see pictures in music that I appreciate her lyrics particularly. For me, on this album, the music and the visualisation conjured by the words are a perfect fit.

However, I also loved the arrangement of the folk song Lipe Rosize by Glauco Venier which begins with his percussive piano and the buzzard-like mewing of soprano sax and voice-noises; no words here but the tale is told well as the plaintive tune moves into jauntier mode. The elements of piano, sax and voice meld together perfectly with no-one above another.

Goddess – a Wayne Shorter composition, is adventurous in form and Norma has said she is particularly pleased with the addition of her lyrics; she hopes that the words ‘make the music into a different piece’. Her inspiration for this piece about Diana the Huntress came from looking up into the starry sky. Her voice ascends into the purity of her upper register and the soprano sax follows, etching light patterns into a velvet backcloth.

The breadth of sources in this collection is interesting, ranging from a thirteenth century troubadour song through jazz ballads such as Dora Caymmi’s Like a Lover, to original pieces composed by Venier or Gesing that have classical influences. To me, the sound production of the whole album is totally fitting. To suit the closeness of purpose that the musicians demonstrate, it feels intimate; as though we are locked in a dark room with them and a light is shining upon each modulated note. Everything can be well-heard but somehow this clarity doesn’t remove the mystery that you always need to make real art.

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