The third ECM album by the trio of Great British jazz singer Norma Winstone, Italian pianist Glauco Venier and German clarinetist / saxophonist Klaus Gesing was recorded in December 2012 at Auditorio Radiotelevisione svizzera, Lugano, with Manfred Eicher as producer.
Dance Without Answer pools material from diverse sources. Alongside the striking self-penned songs, there are pieces by idiosyncratic singer/songwriters Fred Neil, Nick Drake and Tom Waits, as well as tunes associated with the cinema, with contemporary pop, with a children’s television show and more.
The album is bookended by farewells. The opening title track began life as an instrumental by Klaus Gesing called “Tanz ohne Antwort” (“Dance Without Answer”). Norma translated its title and outlined a lyrical plot to match the music’s bittersweet moods, drawing out a tale of incomplete goodbyes. Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’” has the last word, its protagonist in search of some companionable silence, beyond the reach of the world’s babble. A folk scene favourite before it became associated with John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy movie, it is a piece that has been in the Winstone’s trio’s live repertoire from the beginning.
For Klaus Gesing’s tune “High Places” Norma added lyrics inspired by the French Canadian film Incendies, directed by Denis Villeneuve. “I’m not so much telling the story of the film, as responding to its atmosphere. A lot of my lyrics are ‘filmic’ in fact. I tend to think visually when I’m casting around for words.“
Further connections to film include Tomasz Mendez’s “Cucurrucucu Paloma”. Norma loved Caetano Veloso’s version, which is heard in Pedro Almodovar’s Talk To Her, and penned her own English words for the tune. Dave Grusin’s “It Might Be You” was the theme song of Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie. And “Bein’ Green” derives from the Muppet Show. “It was Klaus’ idea to try that,” Winstone says, “but we’re all staunch Muppet fans. It’s an interesting little song – about outsiders, really. No wonder many jazz musicians have been drawn to it”. The long list includes Sinatra, Ray Charles, Stan Kenton, and Shirley Horn. The Patrick Leonard/Madonna tune “Live To Tell” is another one that has attracted the attention of improvisers over the years. Glauco Venier brought it to the trio after hearing Bill Frisell’s version. Winstone honours the shape of the song (“we’re closer to Madonna’s version than Bill’s”).
Tom Waits’s “San Diego Serenade”, played as a duet for voice and bass clarinet, has been a staple of the group’s live work, and was recorded in an earlier version in 2002 for their debut album “Chamber Music”.
Norma has, on a number of previous occasions, added lyrics to Ralph Towner tunes. A comrade of long standing, Towner recorded with the Winstone/Taylor/Wheeler Azimuth trio in 1979. “A Breath Away” is drawn from Ralph’s 1995 recording “Lost and Found”.
The album’s Italian component works some striking contrasts. “Gust Da Essi Viva”, a poem by Novella Cantarutti, who wrote in Friulian dialect, was previously set by Glauco for symphony orchestra and the Big Band Udine. “A Tor A Tor” is a Friulian filastrocca, a bouncing nursery rhyme set to music by Venier.
The sparse instrumentation – a reed instrument, a piano, a voice – adapts itself to all these different contexts: it has encouraged creativity rather than imposed limitations. Winstone clearly enjoys the sense of space in the music, and the silences that can be explored or allowed to resonate, as well as the improvisational flexibility that the players share.
“As Winstone moves ever farther from the Great American Songbook,” All About Jazz observed, “it's certain that, with band mates as sympathetic as Gesing and Venier, there's precious little she can't do.”
This adaptive and resourceful trio already has quite a history. Active for more than a decade already, its roots go back still further: Venier and Gesing have collaborated in musical projects since the mid-1990s, including a long-running duo. When they invited Norma to join them for concerts, the singer recognized the potential for developing a group music with its own character, distinguished by Venier’s highly original harmonisations and Gesing’s approach to the bass clarinet in particular. Oscillating between rhythm and melody roles, he sounds like no other jazz soloist on the instrument.
Their first album as trio, Chamber Music, was recorded in 2002 and released by Universal Music in Austria. This was followed by the Grammy-nominated Distances, recorded for ECM in 2007, and Stories Yet To Tell in 2009.