A grande dame of British jazz, Norma Winstone MBE may be approaching her 70th birthday but the east London-born vocalist shows no signs of fading into well-earned retirement just yet. Indeed, the former Azimuth figurehead and veteran collaborator with everyone from pianists John Taylor and Mike Westbrook to Ian Carr and Kenny Wheeler, has made some of the best received albums of her lengthy career during the last decade; not least 2008's Distances, which garnered a Grammy nomination and a clutch of European jazz awards.
Reuniting with her collaborators on that album, reeds player Klaus Gesing and pianist Glauco Venier, Stories Yet to Tell, like its predecessor, proffers an eclectic miscellany of material. Included this time are standards, mediaeval music, an Armenian lullaby, a Wayne Shorter number and several improvisations based on texts by Winstone herself, all of it moulded into a homogenous whole by Gesing's subtly interwoven woodwind and soprano sax, Venier's warm, embracing keyboard harmonisations and Winstone's highly nuanced, expertly modulated vocalising. As ever with ECM, the production, by label founder Manfred Eicher, is a rich, enveloping delight, somehow lending equally acute detail to both Winstone's aerated upper range tonalities and the woody sonorities of Gesing's bass clarinet.
Despite the disparate provenance of the songs, the album unfurls seamlessly, like episodes from the same narrative, the 'meaning' deducible as much from the tone and timbre of Winstone's wordless improvisational flights as from the lyrics. Thus, Among the Clouds takes wing on wafting unison phrases between voice and woodwind while Winstone adds her own lyrics to the Armenian Cradle Song's gentle swaying. The 13th century troubadour song En Mort d'En Joan de Cucanh, meanwhile, fuses the worlds of numinous sacred music and meditative jazz with an alacrity which fans of Jan Garbarek's collaborations with the Hilliard Ensemble should relish.
Wistful, ethereal and subtle music-making like this will be too soothing, even soporific, for some. But while Stories Yet to Tell is unlikely to win many new converts, those already seduced by Norma Winstone's drowsily compelling voice - and by the dreamy allure of Distances in particular - will find plenty to luxuriate in here.
- - -