‘It’s always good if you can find a theme for an album. In this case, what happened was this: Glauco often plays little tunes during sound-checks, and when you ask him what the music is, it frequently turns out to be from some film. So I thought it would be nice to take music which had been inspired by something visual, and to offer our own take on it.’ (Norma Winstone speaking to Geoff Andrew)
Norma Winstone, long celebrated not only for the beauty and brilliance of her singing but for her sensitivity as a lyricist, found a theme perfectly suited to her talents when she hit on the idea of having her deservedly acclaimed trio work its magic on music written for the movies. Already in their three ECM albums together – Distances, Stories Yet to Tell, and Dance Without Answer – the combined musical skills of Winstone, pianist Glauco Venier and saxophonist/clarinettist Klaus Gesing had demonstrated a rare capacity to create songs full of highly evocative, resonant imagery which at the same time effortlessly transcended conventional generic notions of jazz, ballad standards, pop adaptations, art-song or whatever. Notable for its refined lyricism, subtle invention, agile versatility and impeccable taste, their work together is as impressive for the creative fertility of Venier and Gesing’s arrangements as it is for the limpid purity and emotional authenticity of Winstone’s voice. Florid rhetoric and redundant mannerisms are wholly alien to their aesthetic; preferring delicacy and (deceptive) simplicity, the trio steer clear of pastiche and cliché, invariably making their meticulous way to the heart of the matter in hand.
So it is with Descansado: Songs for Films, a collection based on melodies from movies. A couple of numbers – Nino Rota’s What Is A Youth? (from Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet) and Michel Legrand’s His Eyes, Her Eyes (from Norman Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair) – were already well known as songs, the former with lyrics by Eugene Walter and sung in the movie by Glen Weston, the latter with words by Alan and Marilyn Bergman and sung perhaps most famously by Sarah Vaughan. The rest of the selection, however, consists mostly of new songs based on movie themes, with lyrics written by Winstone especially for the album. Understandably, the trio chose the numbers not so much because of the films’ dramatic content or cinematic virtues as for the melodies themselves, and for the opportunities they provided for fresh exploration and poetic commentary.
Hence, then, the sometimes near-unrecognisable beginning of a song: Bernard Herrmann’s theme from Taxi Driver, for example, gets a significantly sadder, less overtly menacing, more sympathetically human reading than the more thunderously percussive, emphatically noir version which opens Martin Scorsese’s film. Hence, too, Winstone’s lyrics which, in their imaginative response to and reflection on the movies’ various narratives, characters, images and moods, contribute another, parallel ‘theme’ to the album. In lyric after perceptive lyric, Winstone returns over and over to a handful of interrelated motifs: love and loss, innocence and experience, time’s inexorable passing, the transience of happiness, the importance of living for the moment, the bittersweet poignancy of memories.
There is accordingly, as Winstone acknowledges, an undertow of melancholy coursing through the album, punctuated and balanced by the more uptempo interludes of a number from Wim Wenders’ Lisbon Story (Winstone confesses to not being familiar with this particular movie, having found and liked Madredeus’ music on YouTube) and Meryton Town Hall from Joe Wright’s Pride and Prejudice (which Venier suggested for a brief change in mood); on each of these, Winstone lets loose with one of her wordless improvisations, duetting with effortless virtuosity with, respectively, Gesing’s spiralling soprano sax and his burnished, bucolic bass clarinet. Her singing, unsurprisingly, impresses throughout, eschewing ornamental embroidery, savouring small details, holding each perfectly placed note for just the right duration and no more.
Winstone’s voice, moreover, while of prime importance in conveying the judiciously chosen words, happily takes its place as one more instrument in the overall orchestration, acutely alert to colour, texture and rhythm. Gesing and Venier’s arrangements for the trio – augmented here, frequently and always pertinently, by Helga Andreas Norbakken’s percussion and Mario Brunello’s cello – are predictably unpredictable in their explorations of the harmonic and melodic byways of a tune (or, in the case of Lisbon Story, a riff). As Winstone says of her partners, ‘They’re so creative all the time that I never really know what’s going to happen. And I love that.’
Though they consistently take the music in unexpected directions, Venier and Gesing clearly pay careful and richly rewarding attention to the meaning of Winstone’s lyrics. Note, for example, how on Amarcord, with its mentions of ‘footsteps running through an empty square’ and ‘ancient streets where ghosts are found’, Norbakken introduces pitter-pattering sounds to invoke these spirits of the past. And how, on the same track, Venier is heard only for the prologue and epilogue, remaining silent during the main body of the song; in effect, the piano provides a closed, cyclical temporal frame for the central act of remembrance, a fragile, wistful reverie for voice, bass clarinet and percussion.
Such unintrusively imaginative details abound on Descansado: the sultry, sauntering, subtly Latin rhythm of the title track suggestive of a Sophia Loren who once ‘stopped the traffic with a smile’; or the airy piano and gentle, tentative bass clarinet evoking the lost island idyll of Il Postino. The innate lyricism that defines the trio’s work never lapses into sentimentality; hear how Malena – one of Morricone’s quiveringly lush orchestral melodies – is transformed by sheer delicacy of tone in Venier and Winstone’s version.
This is artistic rigour, in the best sense of the term; indulgence is nowhere to be found. The clearest example of this musical thinking is, perhaps, Vivre Sa Vie. It comes as no surprise to learn that this particular choice was suggested by Manfred Eicher, who has long been a friend of and collaborator with Jean-Luc Godard. Over dinner, during the recording sessions, the producer – himself a cinephile – asked the trio if they were familiar with the composer’s music for Godard’s masterpiece, which he had first seen as a student; they weren’t, but overnight Venier checked it out on YouTube and made a transcription. Consequently, the very next morning the musicians and Eicher worked together on arranging and recording Legrand’s characteristically lovely and memorable neo-classical theme.
The result is a small masterpiece in itself: Venier’s piano playing the heartrendingly poignant main theme (which can also be heard in a still more pared-back reprise at the album’s end), Winstone and Gesing’s soprano duetting in counterpoint with a four-note phrase of ascending fourths, and – almost but not quite inaudible in the background – sparse, distant timpani. Not a note is superfluous or out of place in this exquisite gem; it is simply one more example of how these remarkable musicians’ collaborations always feel, for want of a better term, so utterly and pleasingly ‘right’.
Norma Winstone’s ‘Descansado: Songs for Films‘ was released by ECM on Friday 16th February. It can be streamed as well as bought on CD.
The portrait of Norma Winstone is courtesy of Michael Putland and ECM. The photo of the trio at the Cadogan Hall in 2016 is courtesy of the EFG London Jazz Festival’s official photographer Emile Holba.