10 Tracks I Can't Do Without

10 Tracks by Norma Winstone I Can’t Do Without… by vocalist/composer Nicky Schrire.

In our series in which musicians do a “deep dive” into the music of their inspirations, Nicky Schrire writes about ten favourite tracks by Norma Winstone.

Norma Winstone at home in 2016. Publicity photo by Michael Putland

Norma Winstone is a storyteller. This trait is immediately identifiable whether you’re listening to her interviewed on a podcast, learning any set of fabulous lyrics she’s penned or if, like me, you’re lucky enough to meet her in person. I managed to strong-arm Norma into giving me a lesson once. I took the train from London in the fog, she fetched me from the station, and an afternoon of tea and tales ensued. It was bliss.

Norma is a singer’s singer. But she is also a musician’s musician. Wearing both hats is a rare feat for any vocalist. She is considered in such high regard by her instrumental peers because she understands that musicality and collaboration are key. Over many decades, she has performed with the best of the best, covering musical corners from American songbook fare to contemporary, obscure works. As she nears her 80th birthday later this year she continues to seek out new musical playmates, give us lean, clever lyrics and, most importantly, sing.

1. Tea for Two from Somewhere Called Home (1987)

One of my earliest memories of hearing Norma was in this duo context with pianist John Taylor. This was Norma’s first album for ECM under her own name (i.e. it came about after her recordings with John and Kenny Wheeler as Azimuth). Norma’s interpretation of a ballad is one of her many strong suits. The slower tempo (even better when it’s rubato) showcases her vocal clarity and the exquisite interplay between her and John, which spanned several albums. Lucky us.

Hear an excerpt HERE

2. Well Kept Secret from A Timeless Place (1995)

Any vocalist who has tackled Jimmy Rowles’ winding yet intervallic behemoth The Peacocks has likely sung Norma’s elegant lyrics to this composition. I could recount her journey to putting pen to paper, but it’s better from the source. You can listen to Norma tell Pablo Held about this song’s history on his podcast (LINK). The ease with which Norma moves through this music, making the leaps and the snaking, chromatic passages in the bridge seem beyond comfortable, is a master class in superb musicianship.

3. Winter Sweet from Siren’s Song (1997)

I am a late bloomer, so it should be no surprise that while most folks hit upon Azimuth before going on to admire Norma’s output as a bandleader, I led with Norma and circled back to Azimuth. And I didn’t even stumble upon the original trio (purists will be aghast), but the trio with The Maritime Jazz Orchestra. A self-proclaimed “lover of big jumps”, Norma was drawn to Winter Sweet precisely because of the melody’s swooping contour. However, when Norma sings music that is easily identifiable as demanding, she manages to make it seem effortless and even obvious. A pick-up comprising three tension notes over an altered chord? A luscious minor seventh interval? Not a problem for Norma.

4. Ladies In Mercedes from Like Song, Like Weather (1999)

Norma’s first duo recording with John Taylor marked her deliberate move to documenting songs, with lyrics, as opposed to the more cerebral, ethereal improvised offerings of Azimuth. Reuniting with John for another duo outing, there’s a tip-of-the-hat to Azimuth with a two minute-long improvised introduction to the Steve Swallow song. Norma’s wit as a lyricist is on full display here and the picture she paints often reminds me of Stephen Sondheim’s Ladies Who Lunch. I’d like to think Stephen would adore Norma’s storytelling in this instance.

5. A Wish from Songs and Lullabies (2003)

It’s testament to Norma’s mastery, that she was able to foster not one, but two stellar musical partnerships with pianists. Her collaboration with the American pianist Fred Hersch resulted in an album that is of holy grail proportions to jazz pianists and vocalists alike. The record comprises Fred’s tunes made singable with Norma’s lyrics. A Wish is my favourite kind of love song – it eschews cliches and schmaltz for poignancy and an honest reflection on truly yearning for romance.

6. Big Yellow Taxi from It’s Later Than You Think (2006)

A bit of a hidden gem, perhaps, but this cover of Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi, courtesy of Norma and Germany’s NDR Big Band, is an absolute cooker! It was arranged by Colin Towns and it’s fascinating hearing Norma in this context. One usually expects a singer contending with a big band to boast brassy, belty tones a la Diane Schuur or Ella Fitzgerald. However, the arrangement so suits Norma’s personality and prior musical chapters (the move into the angular, edgy solo section, and the barking shout chorus followed by darker reharmonisation) that she more than holds her own and, no small feat when covering Joni, makes the song entirely her own.

I urge you to seek out the NDR Big Band album, but here is Norma singing that same arrangement with Orchestra Jazz della Sardegna and Colin Towns conducting.

7. Among The Clouds from Stories Yet To Tell (2010)

Norma joined forces with German reedman Klaus Gesing and Italian pianist Glauco Venier over a decade ago. The resulting trio explores songs, both traditional and popular, in a delicate manner, allowing all three musicians to shine clearly within the collaboration. Norma wrote lyrics to one of my favourite Maria Schneider compositions, Hang Gliding (retitled Among The Clouds). It’s a lilting, gently inviting rendition that, in keeping with the theme, leaves the listener floating on the sweet sounds of this trio.

Hear an excerpt HERE

8. A Time of No Reply from Dance Without Answer (2014)

Norma, Klaus and Glauco included this Nick Drake song on their third album for the ECM label. The choice of song makes me long for an entire album of English folk songs, as imagined by Norma and company.

9. Westerly from Westerly (2015)

It is fitting for the penultimate and final tracks to belong to The Printmakers, a British jazz “supergroup” of sorts. While I sonically dine out on Norma in a small ensemble, there really is strength in numbers here. Norma, Nikki Iles, Mike Walker, Mark Lockheart, Steve Watts and James Maddren join forces for a dazzling record. The title track showcases Norma’s lyrics, which were inspired by the Annie Proulx novel Postcards. There’s little better than a Western jaunt starring an all-English cast!

10. High Lands from Westerly (2015)

To some degree, this list ends with a nod to Norma’s early days with John and Kenny. Aside from her prowess as a lyricist, her tact in handling a ballad, and her ability to make even the most knotty melody pliable, she is a master of wordless singing. The playfulness of Nikki Iles’ High Lands, is a dazzling vehicle for the group’s musicianship as a whole and also for Norma’s virtuosity.

LINKS: Norma Winstone’s website

Nicky Schrire’s website

6 replies »

  1. Thank you for this list – there are so many great songs and performances that it’s quite hard to choose. Norma’s version of Tea for Two is a personal favourite and sounds quite desolate compared with the jaunty original: the way I hear it, it’s like a fantasy of a relationship that might have happened. Quite stunning.

    I’d also add her interpretation of Peter Gabriel’s “Here Comes the Flood” from Distances which I find intensely moving, even though I have no idea what the song is actually about.

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  2. Is the author unfamiliar with her work before 1987? This selection leaves out all of her early career, yet musicians are normally at their most adventurous when they start out.

    I would have thought that the album ‘Edge of Time’ was worthy of consideration, particularly the title track. Also, the track “Adriane” from the Nucleus album ‘Labyrinth’, and the ‘three poems’ sequence from Neil Ardley’s ‘Symphony of Amaranths’.

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    • Hi Teejay, I’m so glad you read the piece! I am not wholly unfamiliar with Norma’s work pre-1987, however, as you can glean from my list above, my preference is for less improvisatory and more song-focused music. From any artist, including Norma. So “Edge of Time” doesn’t make it onto my most-listened Norma playlist for that reason.

      I also made sure to mention Azimuth even though their music doesn’t make my list. I have a preference for Norma’s later work. This isn’t a definitive “Top Ten” but, merely, a list of my favourites. No doubt your list would be very different, reflecting your tastes in Norma’s work and music in general.

      I didn’t know Ardley’s “Three Poems”-what a lovely discovery and I look forward to getting better acquainted with the work. Thank you for the recommendation!

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      • Thank you for your response. I appreciate your viewpoint but my concern is that there was golden age of British Jazz at the cusp of the sixties and seventies that now seems to have been almost written out of Jazz history.

        I am thinking of the Mike Gibbs Orchestra, Nucleus, Back Door, the Mike Westbrook Band, the Neil Ardley collective, the Chitinous Ensemble, Isotope, SOS, the Brotherhood of Breath, the Spontaneous Music Ensemble etc. (At this time too, two British musicians were part of the Miles Davis group that recorded Bitches Brew. McLaughlin and Holland also played on other notable British recordings such as ‘Where Fortune Smiles’ featuring John Surman.)

        Perhaps there should be a separate ‘10 best’ covering this particular phase of British Jazz.

        On the subject of Norma Winstone, it is worth recalling that she sung the ‘Love Songs’ on Mike Westbrook’s album of that name.

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  3. (Sebastian/ Editor) Thanks for these comments and additional suggestions. To state the obvious, this “10 tracks” format is nothing more than a personal selection by a musician at a particular point in time. It is not intended to be in any way definitive; there will always be things that can be added.

    In other words, it is neither intended to be the last word, nor indeed even *their* last word on the subject.

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