Review: Norma Winstone at the Oxford Jazz Festival

Norma Winstone, Klaus Gesing, Glauco Venier
(Randolph Hotel, April 24th 2011,part of Oxford Jazz Festival, review by Paul Guest, photo credit: Barker Evans)

My first encounter with Norma Winstone in concert was at the London Jazz Festival in November last year. I remember that I had been apprehensive beforehand, but that her trio’s performance had dramatically changed my perspective: music which I hadn’t known at all had brought me the same feelings of contentment as the renewal of an old friendship.

Now I find myself in Oxford to hear their beautiful music once more, as part of the Oxford Jazz Festival. You couldn’t have had a more perfect day, with Oxford basking in the sunshine. I decided to arrive at the Randolph Hotel early to get the feel of the venue, to take stock of the audience before the concert began.

In London I had been greeted by a wealth of young people. I wanted to know whether this transcended to the Oxford Jazz scene: Not really. I sat in the bar waiting and all I saw was grey hair after white hair, but then, late – as ever – a flock of young professionals came through the doors, thank god!

On first impressions, the venue was dire; it was the room where I would have had my sixth birthday party with a cheap DJ, party balloons and probably a twister mat: Yes, my parents were that cruel to me. Not that I’m a usual jazz goer but the seating seemed much too formal, I really wanted to be in a dark room with the spotlight on Norma; you know, something much more intimate, because that is how I feel when I listen, like Norma’s best friend, it can be very personable.

“I wear flats for the sound check and heels for the gig” Norma said while adjusting her mic. The music began, instantly I had disappeared into a world of just the music; the venue that I hated didn’t matter; the damn photographer snapping photographs in front of me didn’t matter.

Norma Winstone, Klaus Gesing and Glauco Venier are a trio matched in heaven; they can read each other like books and they also create beautiful music but not only do they create music but they give you story, a journey. That journey begins from the very first note and only ends at complete silence. Gesing’s well-placed harmonic lines slyly become the second voice with his beautiful velvety notes from either the bass clarinet or soprano sax that acted so versatile throughout the performance. Venier on the piano becomes a master of his craft visibly using both eyes and ear to deliver a compilation of chord, melody and décor; he gives the piano some touch love. When Norma Winstone starts to sing the flower blossoms, the Barbra Streisand of Jazz; her beautiful lyrics combined with her sublime vocal colour of a deep red transport you from reality to another world; far away, somewhere unknown; you feel the floor disappear beneath you.
The programme was a mixture of work from the trio’s most recent album “Stories Yet To Tell” and the previous “Distances”.

During a chat with Norma she told me “I never remember the order… I didn’t even realise we were going to perform ‘Mermaid’… it just felt right, right key, right time” – It shows just how lost Norma is in the music too. Renditions of ‘Just Sometimes’, ‘Among the Clouds” and a personal favourite “Goddess” all portrayed immense beauty. Norma sings into the microphone as it if were a delicate rose. ‘Rush’ is most haunting, beautiful too.

Even the incredibly technical improvisations and the mass of talented, articulate scat singing that split up the trio’s softer songs came together to create something so perfectly infectious, in fact I found it really overwhelming. During the improvisation you had to search through a jungle of notes to find the melody- appropriately like a musical egg hunt.

I’ve read things about Norma that suggest she has found success late in the game; I disagree, her voice has matured into something of great beauty and almost like finding your soul mates, she has found two perfect musical partners in Venier and Gesing.

The magic of their music is that the Piano, Voice and Saxophone coalesce into one, one self, one existence.

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5 replies »

  1. A fitting tribute to an exceptional evening of music – Her subtlety, skill and warmth were a treat to behold. You encapsulate the beauty of the evening pretty succinctly Paul, it really was quite magical.
    It was a climax to four days of diverse, exciting, inspirational jazz of which Oxford should feel truly proud – We certainly do, as the team behind it!

    Here's to Oxford Jazz Festival 2012!

  2. Paul – great words. Uber jealous that I'm on the other side of the planet and couldn't come and see Norma as well; although through your writing and simultaneously listening to her on youtube it's like the next best thing. And I'll second BigBangMax… here's to Oxford Jazz 2012!

  3. As a visitor to Oxford Jazz Festival for a couple of days from up North I found Norma's gig a fitting climax to the whole weekend.
    I'd not seen the band with Glauco Venier and Klaus Gesing before and the album material is not that familiar to me.
    I found the whole evening a complete joy to listen to.
    Some really nice compositions and the interplay was brilliant. You could tell that the band members themselves were surprised by some of things happening, a sign of not going through the motions.
    'Ladies in Mercedes' has become Norma's signature tune of sorts and with this lineup was given a quite different treatment that I'd heard before.
    So a really good weekend and well done to the organisers (the Mediterranean weather also helped).

  4. Winstone seems incapable of less than the best and as much as I loved the Azimuth trio, arguably the most unique chamber jazz recorded on ECM in its time, this ensemble surpasses it, which is no mean feat, in serving as an ideal vehicle for her work, her writing as well as her singing, both of which are estimable at the least and, to my ear, in combination, without parallel.
    So I agree wholeheartedly with what is said about Winstone's work, save one word: Streisand, who would be better compared with Sinatra, as a great interpreter and a captivating entertainer – but not an accomplished composer or lyricist, while Winstone is both, as well as a good team player, not a prima donna.
    Be all that as it may, your thoughts on Norma's gig reminded me much of my impressions every time I've been lucky enough to hear her, and it's nice to be reminded.
    Norma, though ageless, is, believe it or not, in her 60s, so had she been in the audience, she would have been one of those grey-and-whites. The ageist comments were gratuitous, irrelevant to the music, and demeaning without reason. I would also bet that those young professionals the writer was so glad to see arrive at the last minute were more likely to make rude and stupid noises during the performance than us old farts. Last time I checked, tickets cost the same regardless of the buyer's age, and jazz as adventurous as this needs every cent it can get.

  5. The Norma Winstone experience was exquisite..i remember her well from times past with her then partner John Taylor, also a gifted musician..
    but what a an ensemble, such perfect balance between the beautiful lyrics and the sheer brilliance of the two gifted players .. i have to hand it to Paul and Max for this magical evening.
    please.. please ..bring Norma back as soon as possible. yours in perfect (white haired) adoration … a mighty hard old geezer to please
    nowadays it was perfection.thank you. j j soul.

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