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And all that jazz

PUBLISHED: 11:31 05 March 2009 | UPDATED: 15:50 20 February 2013

Norma Winstone

Norma Winstone

A former BBC Jazz Singer of the Year and up for a Grammy this year, it all began when Norma Winstone started singing at British Legion dances for her parents' friends

A singer from her early years, the young Norma Winstone was a member of her school choir at Dagenham County High, and it was her class teacher who spotted her talent and helped her secure a place at Trinity College. She went there for classes every Saturday, learning both singing and the organ as a second study.

And on nights out with her parents at British Legion dances, when Norma got up to perform, friends were quick to suggest she pursue her talent. To begin with, she also sang at weddings, but had early developed a passion for jazz and the two didn't comfortably mix.

Instead, she found a group in East Ham playing music and braved herself to ask if she could sing with them. By serendipity, their regular singer was leaving and Norma was set on the first steps of a great career.

Eventually she met up with John Taylor, the virtuoso pianist, with whom she began to develop the art of song without words, and experimental voicing, a skill which permeates much of her music today. Taylor, Kenny Wheeler and Norma formed Azimuth, a group that continued together for a couple of decades, with performances that took them all over Europe.

We are at Norma's lovely home, overlooking Walmer's seafront, discussing her latest cd, Distances, recorded with Glauco Venier and Klaus Gesing on the legendary ECM label after Manfred Eicher of ECM heard her Chamber Music on Austrian radio and became interested in producing it.

Norma admits: "I was stunned, really. Recording with ECM means you have a higher audience because of their distribution. With a small label, only people in your country get to hear it."

Venier had discovered that a poem by his north-east Italian compatriot, Pier Paolo Pasolini, fitted very well with the Petite Ouverture a Danser and the track Ciant, or giant, is one of the most haunting of an entrancingly beautiful collection.

Venier taught Norma to sing in his language and now Klaus Gesing, the saxophone playing third member of the trio, wants Norma to learn to sing in German, to her evident amusement. The trio on Distances has been together off and on for about eight years now. "Work has been a bit sparse, but we knew we had something as a group," says Norma.

The issue of words in song is important to Norma who, at the height of the avant-garde jazz years in the 1970s, had more or less pioneered song without words. "I see the voice as a sound and I want to make music that I like, and I can do it with this trio. I can sing Peter Gabriel, or a standard."

We talk of the sublime, that notion which infuses all discussions of aesthetics in art, and I ask if Norma has experienced this. "There was a point in Every Time We Say Goodbye when I was so emotional I thought I wouldn't be able to sing my piece," she tells me - and it's true, the track gives you goose bumps.

Norma has her own integrity, her own voice and distinctive style. It's a great voice, with a slightly husky tone, yet it is confident and boasts an excellent range. There's no-one quite like her. She describes her own style as "contemporary, but heavily influenced by the British tradition of jazz and also classical music."

She denies that she could be a model for a Stacey Kent or Claire Teal, although she has done some teaching through the years. "I learnt from this guy, Al Dukardo, who used to play the piano. I had a quiet voice and he taught me about breathing and projecting."

But she is doubtful about what can be taught: "You have to immerse yourself in the music, as I did, and I was obsessed," she admits. Norma also notes that she was lucky to get opportunities to work with Michael Garrick and Mike Westbrook and go beyond the great American songbook.

When she had given up singing, depressed by the repertoire for weddings, Norma nonetheless continued as a collector, developing her repertoire for the right moment.

Norma reads a lot of poetry and this also fed into her skills at creating words for the music John Taylor composed. "I began to write more lyrics, this was a way of expanding the repertoire." On Distances, many of the words are hers.

She shows me a collection edited by Neil Astley, which she found inspiring. And she is driven by the music: "I look on it as finding words in the music: I can't write the words if I'm not inspired by the music. I want to sing good words. I don't want to sing what is trite"

Norma was awarded Best Vocalist in the BBC Jazz Awards in 2001, and was also nominated in both 2007 and 2008.

She has been awarded an MBE for her services to music and this year is up for a Grammy, for the Best Jazz Vocal Album.

"I'm happy about my reputation, fairly gratified," she says. "There are a lot of people who don't understand what I do, but my reputation is among other singers and musicians."

Not surprisingly, Norma hopes to continue what she is doing, to keep on using her voice, which will take her away from her favourite home pursuits of gardening, walking and reading, but which is quite clearly, and, luckily for admirers of her music, both her love and obsession.

You can enjoy Norma Winstone's voice, with Glauco Venier on piano and Klaus Gesing on saxophone, at Kings Place, London, on 20 March at 7.30pm.

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