Norma Winstone

The BluesBlack, Brown & Beige
Two KitesManhattan In The Rain
The Music That Makes Me DanceManhattan In The Rain
San Diego SerenadeChamber Music
Somewhere Called HomeSomewhere Called Home
Just SometimesStories Yet To Tell
A Timeless PlaceWell Kept Secret
Chamber MusicChamber Music
Time Of No ReplyDance Without Answer
Prelude To A KissWell Kept Secret


Norma Winstone playlist



Contributor: Ian Ashleigh

I have been fascinated by the female singing voice ever since I can remember, and when my cousin, Alan Cohen, released his interpretation of Duke Ellington’s Black, Brown & Beige in 1973, I was captivated by the third section of the Brown movement, The Blues, sung by Norma Winstone. Duke Ellington envisaged Black, Brown & Beige as a jazz symphony, hence my choice of language. I would suggest the whole album is worth listening to; it is cited in some circles as the best ‘non-Ellington’ interpretation of the work. Impressively, the vinyl album now changes hands at ‘collector’s prices’. A double CD of the album that has been packaged with Runnin’ Wild, a collection of Paul Whiteman tunes that Alan recorded, seems to be readily available at more sensible prices.

Norma Winstone photo

Over time, I have acquired a number of Norma Winstone’s recordings and here are ten songs as a personal choice and a taster for you to listen to. I hope this inspires you to explore a great British jazz singing voice. My personal collection is nowhere near complete and you may know of, or discover, other recordings and may wish to add to my suggestions in the Toppermost ‘what no’ tradition!

Before we get to the music, here’s a brief biography – there is a longer bio on Norma’s website (see link below):

Norma Winstone was born in Bow in east London and first attracted attention in the late sixties when she shared the bill at Ronnie Scott’s club with Roland Kirk. Although she began her career singing jazz standards, she became involved in the avant garde movement, exploring the use of the voice in an experimental way and evolving her own wordless approach to improvisation. In 1971, she was voted top singer in the Melody Maker Jazz Poll and subsequently recorded her debut album, Edge Of Time, which now has near-mythic status.

She’s worked with numerous jazz musicians throughout the years, including as a member of the trio Azimuth in the late 1970s with trumpet-player Kenny Wheeler and then-husband John Taylor. She later contributed vocals to Wheeler’s 2013 release with the London Vocal Project, Mirrors. Breughel and Tweedledum from that album were both on the shortlist for this ten. In 2002, Norma Winstone started working with Klaus Gesing (saxophones and clarinet) and Glauco Venier (piano), a trio that still works together and one that has produced a number of fine albums – at the time of writing I’m not aware of any live recordings.

Norma Winstone’s recordings include surprising interpretations of standards such as Tea For Two and Shall We Dance but I will leave you to discover those yourself, for there are nine other tracks I want to choose. I will, however, point you towards a stunning version of Hi Lili Hi Lo on the album Somewhere Called Home that just missed out on inclusion.

We have my start point and the reason I began to explore Norma Winstone’s music; let’s look at the tracks that are in the list and some others that missed out. I absolutely love the 1998 release Manhattan In The Rain. Recorded in Ardingly, West Sussex (confusingly, the village is pronounced as if it rhymes with ‘pie’), the album was described by Dave Gelly in The Observer as a “delectable set of songs … masterly and enthralling”. I could easily have filled the nine remaining spaces with tracks from this album but I’ve restricted myself to just two.

Two Kites, written by Antonio Carlos Jobim, is full of such glorious imagery and allegory that you are taken away on the wind with the lyric to wherever your own imagination chooses to go. And that could be somewhere different with each listen. The Music That Makes Me Dance (from Funny Girl) is equally allegorical but more obvious. The title track of the album is a beautiful song of love that might have been; somehow it didn’t make the ten although it was one of the first tracks I wrote down when I started to compile my list.

There have been numerous covers of Tom Waits’ San Diego Serenade, indeed Norma has covered it twice; on Chamber Music in 2002 and again on Dance Without Answer some eleven years later. I’ve chosen the earlier recording because, with the combination of clarinet and vocal, it sounds more evocative.

The earliest of Norma Winstone’s solo recordings I have is Somewhere Called Home. Recorded in Oslo in 1986, it features the simple backing of John Taylor’s piano and Tony Coe’s clarinet and tenor sax. The vocal performance on the title track is simply sublime. Here are nine tracks of pure bliss and some surprise, but Somewhere Called Home kept choosing itself, and those of you who have compiled your own Toppermost tens will know what I mean.

Just Sometimes opens the 2009 collection Stories Yet To Tell with Winstone singing her own lyric for the first time in this selection. This is a gentle ballad with a simple piano arrangement that leaves you wanting more. The song fits well with A Timeless Place which is found on Well Kept Secret, an album that was recorded in Los Angeles in 1993. This track is another example of Norma Winstone’s fine lyric set to another simply perfect jazz arrangement.

I need to gently wake you from the reverie of the last two tracks, and there is no better way than with the title track of Chamber Music, an album recorded in Udine, Italy in 2002. The piano, bass clarinet and soprano saxophone bounce happily along behind a lyric dedicated to music. I cannot listen to this song without smiling.

Dance Without Answer is the most recent recording I have. Released in 2013, it was recorded in Lugano, Italy, a decade after the trio of Winstone, Venier, Gesing came together to record Chamber Music. This is a fine collection. They revisit San Diego Serenade although I prefer the earlier recording. There is also a fun version of Bein’ Green from The Muppets.

The outstanding track on Chamber Music though is Time Of No Reply. Norma Winstone’s voice takes Nick Drake’s lyric to a whole new level; she slows the song down and gives it a poise and poignancy that can draw a lump to the throat. Simply beautiful.

We end where we began with Duke Ellington. Prelude To A Kiss from Well Kept Secret is as good a place to complete our brief look at the vocal talent that is Norma Winstone.

I have not included any examples of her avant garde recordings or the wordless improvisation, but I hope I’ve whetted your appetites sufficiently to seek these for yourselves.

Norma Winstone photo two

In July 2001, Norma Winstone won the title of Best Vocalist in the BBC Jazz Awards hosted by Humphrey Lyttleton. She continues in the forefront of British jazz and was nominated again in 2007 and 2008 for best vocalist. She was also named vocalist of the year at the 2015 Parliamentary Jazz Awards.

She was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in 2007.

If Norma Winstone is a new name to you, I hope you’ve enjoyed discovering one of the finest female jazz singers Britain has produced. If she was already familiar to you, I look forward to your alternative suggestions.


Norma Winstone official website

Norma Winstone explains on YouTube how her collaboration with Klaus Gesing and Glauco Venier came about

In Conversation with Norma Winstone (YouTube)

The Duke Ellington Reader: on Alan Cohen’s Black, Brown & Beige

Norma Winstone biography (Apple Music)

TopperPost #473

1 Comment

  1. Hi-Lili Hi-Lo
    Sep 13, 2015

    Just read your post about Norma and saw you talked about the song Hi-Lili Hi-Lo. My band is called Hi-Lili Hi-Lo, after this song, and we have a track called Birds (Fly Over the Rainbow) which I wanted to share with you since it has its similarities 🙂 You can hear it on Spotify or on bandcamp Hope you enjoy it!
    all the best, Mikel (Hi-Lili Hi-Lo)

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