Daily jazz blog, Marlbank

Robert Mitchell interview

First published in 2017. A significant milestone in the pianist and composer’s distinguished career, a work that takes its inspirations in freedom, groove, power, grace, symbiosis, Ubuntu, trust, love and loss ROBERT MITCHELL explains the origins …

Published: 10 Nov 2019. Updated: 4 years.

First published in 2017. A significant milestone in the pianist and composer’s distinguished career, a work that takes its inspirations in freedom, groove, power, grace, symbiosis, Ubuntu, trust, love and loss ROBERT MITCHELL explains the origins and background to his groundbreaking A Vigil For Justice, a Vigil For Peace.

The most thought provoking and moving part of the album is the tribute to Debbie Purdy. How did you know Debbie, and why did you decide to write the tribute? I knew her through my long and continued association with the great Omar Puente, her husband. And in a professional sense as a musician who interacted with her as an agent in duo with Omar. Her positivity in spite of such difficult circumstances having long term multiple sclerosis were beyond inspirational. And as we live longer more circumstances will come to light for the UK courts to deal with in the difficult area of ending suffering for such chronic conditions while not criminalising those who are left to potentially make such an important decision. So I think the appreciation of the work she did to highlight the archaic state of the law here will only increase. It was the least I could do.

A Vigil For Justice, a Vigil For Peace seems to have powerful liturgical elements couched in a secular language. That’s not an easy thing to do. Do you think people are really in tune with their spiritual side; is that part of the need provided? It is more spiritual than liturgical for me. I mean both from the viewpoint of being vigilant but also its meaning of deeply watching something that is potentially coming to an end. Among many things in these times justice and peace certainly need constant vigilance. I think we are kept distracted from our spirituality by too much news, biased for the needs of whichever corporation is putting it out and by too much technology that is designed to hypnotise and not educate and inspire. I would love to contribute to helping to bring a better balance to this state of affairs in any way I can; and both the album in its inspiration and it being on vinyl (with all its inherent rituals), are a part of that need.

Can you describe where you’re coming from in terms of poetic inspiration and what element of poetry inspires you most when it comes to interpreting it musically as well as separately? I’m thinking of a number of innovations in this area you’re probably familiar with, say Stan Tracey and Michael Horovitz, the poem on A Love Supreme probably the greatest of them all… maybe you’d give an overview of your personal journey with the genre? I am inspired through the prism of lyrics that are poetic and can stand alone, and poems that have been set to music. Obviously we are exposed to a number of poems in school. But my father’s songs were a starting point for me to attempt to express through lyrics. His love of Carmen Jones, Show Boat, Cats, etc. meant I was exposed to his rehearsing of Oscar Hammerstein II, Tim Rice, PG Wodehouse, etc, and through jazz Ira Gershwin, Jon Hendricks, Betty Carter, Billy Strayhorn. Going the other way anything from traditional Haiku, Zuni spiritual poems, to Claudia Rankine and Warsan Shire. For me, the inspiration will spring from rhythm, rhyme, metaphor, and any original approach to imagery that expands the imagination. Poems whose lifeblood is eternal hope striving through trying times.

Tell me about the background of Thami Hlabangana, one of the narrators of the album. New name to me. How did your collaboration come about? Thami was introduced to me by producer Miles Bould. Originally from Zimbabwe he is a brilliant MC and poet and recorded great takes of these poems very quickly. They used to be in a group together a while ago. I would love to perform with him live but he doesn’t do it that often and I am still working on persuading him! In the meantime look out for some videos featuring his great narration.

You go way back with HKB Finn, don’t you? I recall hearing you play Brussels with him at the Jazz Marathon festival too many years ago now to comfortably recall, actually thankfully not that many! How did you first describe the project to HKB and what do you think he brings most to it? Yes I used to be in a band with HKB years ago and he has guested on a previous album of mine The Cusp. I described the background to the album, sent the poem and he came over to record, simples! He brings a great sensitivity, range and lightness of spirit to this project.

How long has your Epiphany trio been around? What is it that you like most about the way you play together? It is a very recent thing for me being born last year. I love the consistent challenge to up the risk-taking, the quality and clarity of improvisational narrative, and moving towards including more pieces of completely improvised music.

Have you worked with producer Miles Bould before? How did he come on board and why choose him in the first place? What do you think he brought most of all to the project? I have worked with Miles Bould in his fantastic band Usonic for a number of years and have taken part in the recording of an earlier project of Yolanda Charles, The Deep Mo, in which he played drums. I asked him to take part as he is a hugely experienced percussionist with the likes of Sting, Robert Palmer and Billy Ocean who also is heavily into fusion and electric jazz. He has worked with numerous brilliant producers and I was led to wonder if he did much himself! He brought a great clarity, levity and a brilliant scrutiny to capturing our sound at the highest quality. I feature on his great new album Tribute and he himself features on a brilliant new ECM album by the superb Dominic Miller.

In terms of the album message it seems you are ‘waiting’ and ‘hoping’ against the odds for social and political change. That wait/hoping when and how did it begin and how, what needs to happen, will it end? I think it is a frustration that has grown partly through living as a son, and husband of nurses in the NHS. It is of course connected to the way society here is structured and badly imbalanced. That has not happened in isolation and is connected to my parents coming here in the 1950s and 60s: their hopes and fears. And as a parent myself I see opportunities for education, good health and the arts becoming ever harder to access for far too many. What needs to happen is first talking about this as often as possible especially with those who have a different viewpoint from my own and putting our creative energies towards implementing the best ideas. That amazing thing that the Internet is capable of – of being the most incredible forum – is slowly helping great ideals spread globally. We need to take part and contribute via our skills. I don’t think politics can best benefit from just a proportion of a population being active only on polling day. I hope it ends with yes a hard fought but long lasting unity across people, nations, cultures, religions and approaches to living on this one planet we have to share at this present time.

How do you see poetry operating differently to say using a hip-hop style and why does it attract you more for this project? I see it operating in the very same way but just at a different frequency range. It is a shared root love of the power of language, and the need for the words to stand forth without being sung that attracted me this time around. I had not done it before to this degree, and with the nature of the inspiration for this album, the subject matter etc, I thought mostly the solo narrator and the internal rhythm of poetry would be something to explore in a larger way. I wanted the words to stand alone and to have the weight of meaning dictate the direction, and the music to sonically echo the space in which you reflect on the words.

The power in the lyrics seems most expressed in ‘The Migration.’ Is the role of the artist an observer of world events as well as an interpreter of them? Can art take the place of a helplessness as tragic events unfold? I think we need more artists to observe, interpret, reflect and also be involved in the creation of solutions to the challenges that we face. As a descendant of people who were stripped of so many freedoms as slaves – language, religion, family ties etc – art survived and provided a vital help. It has been a lifeblood for many cultures going through an equivalent tragedy throughout history. Culture is the ultimate connector, the eternal therapy, and the clearest mirror in which historical events are passed on. So, yes it can take place of a helplessness. But I do think jazz, music and art in general can definitely play a bigger role in shaping a better future and really ought to contribute much more towards this right now.

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Norma Winstone interview

From 2014. The inconclusiveness of human relationships is explored on Norma Winstone’s remarkable trio album Dance Without Answer. ‘Something has to have some kind of emotional trigger otherwise I can’t come up with words’ – Norma Winstone The 2006 …

Published: 10 Nov 2019. Updated: 4 years.

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From 2014. The inconclusiveness of human relationships is explored on Norma Winstone’s remarkable trio album Dance Without Answer. ‘Something has to have some kind of emotional trigger otherwise I can’t come up with words’ – Norma Winstone

The 2006 album Klaus Gesing album Heart Luggage is as good a place to start as any where approaching Dance Without Answer is concerned. It’s a fairly obscure, unjustly perhaps, record featuring reeds player Gesing, who’s on Dance Without Answer once again in Norma Winstone’s trio completed by Italian pianist Glauco Venier. Düsseldorf-born Gesing’s album included the title track of Dance Without Answer (or ‘Tanz ohne Antwort’ in German) Winstone has written words for. But burrowing back that bit further in a now substantial chapter of Winstone’s career with the trio also yields starting points and the album Chamber Music from 2003 in particular where the story of a remarkable collaboration that has borne substantial fruit began. The inclusion of Tom Waits’ ‘San Diego Serenade’ from Chamber Music is a gentle reminder of this distant tributary that flows once more into the main stream of the trio’s work. But it also has practical significance too, because as Winstone says, no one can buy Chamber Music any more as the Universal-released album is unavailable. She’s always being asked about the song at concerts, hence its inclusion.

Dance without Answer extends the remarkable chemistry that made the trio tick in the first place, that, following on from Stories Yet To Tell (released in 2010) and the Grammy-nominated Distances (2008), is now framed more within a contemporary lingua franca of popular song, particularly with material ranging from sourcing a Madonna song and scrolling further back ‘Everybody’s Talkin’’ synonymous with the film Midnight Cowboy. Making sense of an album that also includes a Mexican folk tune, the catchy ‘Cucurrucucu Paloma’, new songs such as ‘High Places’ Winstone has written words to with music by Gesing, as well as Dave Grusin’s ‘It Might Be You’, Nick Drake’s ‘Time Of No Reply’ (an out-take from Five Leaves Left), Ralph Towner’s ‘A Breath Away’ with new words by Winstone, not to mention children’s song ‘Bein’ Green’ is not straightforward. Yet as with their previous albums together, also containing material from disparate sources, a clear thread emerges: it’s a music easily ascertained as having jazz roots but also identifiably chamber music to hark back to the title of their first album together. It's music of the beyond, that requires in its interpretative power odd clashes or questions unasked or simply unanswerable. Who’s doing the dance and who’s not answering, just two; but as ever posed indirectly.

Winstone, a clear jazz vocals innovator of international standing dating back to the latter part of the 1970s to the time in her career when her ‘wordless’ style found its defining moment with the trio Azimuth in the company of trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and Winstone’s former husband John Taylor, still has a restless vision given expression not just by her constantly questioning vocal stance but also by the openness of her lyrics. Dance without Answer was recorded in Lugano in Switzerland just over a year ago and Winstone explains firstly why the location was chosen.

“It was there because we had recorded I think three times in all at Artesuono studio [near Udine in Italy] which was local to Glauco the pianist. He just felt he would like a change of scenery, at least a different studio because he has done lots of projects there. That was the first thing. But the engineer was the same anyway, so it wasn’t that; we took Stefano Amerio who came along with Manfred Eicher [the producer]. But Manfred likes to use that studio for particular types of music I think and it’s hard to get it but he managed to get this date free so we decided that we’d go there. And it actually was quite different recording there because we set up as if we were doing a concert. And I had no headphones, I didn’t use headphones or have any foldback, any monitor; and the guys they didn’t have headphones either, they just had a little bit of me in monitor speakers and it was the way that Manfred likes to work in this room and it was quite an extraordinary sound. I really didn’t think that it would work to begin with. I thought I wouldn’t be able to hear myself. The room is often used for classical concerts. It’s actually a theatre within the Swiss radio building in Lugano.”

Winstone recalls performing with Klaus Gesing and Glauco Venier for the first time and reflects on her impressions of that occasion and why she thinks a rapport built up. “I think the rapport was there in the beginning for some reason which it is sometimes, you don’t really know why. It was in Italy when I first played with them and they had been playing as a duo for a couple of years I think and I think they had some extra money or something for a guest. It was suggested that they have a guest on this next couple of concerts they were doing and they asked me. And I didn’t know them. As it turned out I had met Glauco before on a recording session for an Italian drummer but it wasn’t Glauco’s project. And, anyway, I found out, oh yes, I had met him before. And so I said well OK we’ll do it if you play the music I sent for you to play because I had no idea, had no recorded evidence of what they were like. But I remembered Glauco, I remembered liking his playing on this project. So I just went, and they played all the things I sent, because they knew a lot of the stuff that I did. They were big Azimuth fans, and they both had Somewhere Called Home and other things.”

Winstone doesn’t necessarily see any real point of comparison with her 1980s record Somewhere Called Home with John Taylor and Tony Coe despite the similarity in instrumentation. “No, I don’t know it’s just that’s how they were working as a duo. I joined them. Yet it seemed a coincidence that it was another saxophone and clarinet although Tony Coe played a normal clarinet. He didn’t play bass clarinet which is what Klaus plays. He’s an extraordinary bass clarinettist and of course he doesn’t play tenor saxophone. Well he can, but he doesn’t with our group, it’s like the opposite end of the spectrum in the sound world because he plays very high on soprano saxophone, and can play very low on bass clarinet.”

That deep sound stimulates Winstone from an improvising point of view. The singer says: “I think it has a colour, it has various colours which, yes, are very satisfying and inspiring to hear. And yeah I love the instrumentation. I think it’s fairly unusual. He can play the role of bass lines, which means the piano doesn’t have to keep doing that; and which, of course, with Azimuth again just three people but a different sound completely. The brass sound which is what it is. You can’t really do much else with it in terms of it playing a role rhythmically which you can with bass clarinet. As soon as we did the third concert I just thought well they play extraordinarily well together and I was a bit concerned about getting in their way to be honest. I sort of had to consider what I did with them because I thought well I’ve come in here and I could be destroying their rapport. But actually it didn’t take very long at all to realise that we seemed to be all on the same wavelength.”

Rapport is a word that crops up a few times in the course of the conversation. Defined simply in the Collins Dictionary as “a sympathetic relationship or understanding” it is nonetheless a scarce but vital commodity in a jazz context. “It doesn’t always happen,” Winstone says. “Of course it was always like that with John Taylor and Kenny Wheeler. You know there are people who you play with over the years that you have a rapport with. I don’t know this just seemed to be special. I really wanted to hang on to that and I then wanted to find out what they wrote, what their writing was like, and so that’s how we started to try to get more concerts, and they began to play me what they’d composed and it went on from there.”

Gesing’s writing appealed to Winstone in a particular way and on Dance Without Answer the singer, who in the past has made a considerable impact by writing lyrics to such songs as Jimmy Rowles ‘The Peacocks’, a high watermark of the 1990s in setting transformative poetic lyrics in a modern instrumental jazz context (in the process alchemising the floating melody into ‘A Timeless Place’), has written lyrics to four songs here, mostly to music by Klaus Gesing.

“‘High Places’ was one that he just played me he said he had just written it. He just played it to me on the keyboard. I don’t know I had a kind of an emotional impact. For me to be able to write words, something has to have some kind of emotional trigger otherwise I can’t come up with words. And I knew as soon I heard that piece and I don’t really know why I just knew I could write words to it to become a song.

“With ‘Dance Without Answer’ he had recorded that already, I think Gwilym Simcock’s on that record they did a few years ago. I had the album and I was just playing it, just looking for pieces. And I heard this one, it had the German title ‘Tanz ohne Antwort’ which means directly translated ‘Dance without Answer’. I just liked it, I liked the harmonic movement and sometimes there would just be harmonic movement in one bit of the tune which you just wait for it. It’s like that with all favourite music, sometimes I listen to classical music and I wait for the bit that I really like to come along. It’s how the rest of the music has meaning while you’re waiting for that particular bit that you love to come up. For me to write words I have to find that in a piece, and I did in ‘Dance Without Answer’.”

‘I just get these pictures in my head sometimes when I listen to music’

The title track, a song with the slipping of light as day becomes night as background and a calling of a female voice to a lone male who won’t answer, their parting of the ways pronounced yet somehow not a clear goodbye. Winstone thinks almost out loud about whether she thinks the song is about relationships and the impossibility of perfect communication.

“Yes it’s funny because I was really thinking that in some way it was like an extension of ‘Sea Lady’ I wrote words to [for the Kenny Wheeler tune that appears on 1986’s Somewhere Called Home and later 1990’s Music For Large and Small Ensembles] where he is kind of static and can’t respond to her call to go with her, and I had a similar feeling. I just get these pictures in my head sometimes when I listen to music and I often start writing words with one line which seems to fit the music and then it starts to develop into some kind of a little scenario. And I suppose that’s what it was, it wasn’t about relationships in general; it could be; more or less this one person who had an opportunity of a relationship that somehow he couldn’t take he couldn’t answer.”

One of the more unusual aspects of Dance Without Answer is the inclusion of a song identified with Madonna, a song Glauco Venier chose, knowing it from Bill Frisell’s version on his 1992 Elektra Nonesuch album Have a Little Faith. Winstone seems an unlikely Madonna fan. “I’ve heard her but I’ve never bought any of the records,” she says diplomatically. The bittersweet ‘It Might Be You’ though is closer to her heart and could well be the stand-out of the record in terms of the songs by other writers. Winstone says she loves Alan and Marilyn Bergman’s lyrics but didn’t realise at first they had written the words for the Dave Grusin song that appeared in the Dustin Hoffman-starring comedy film Tootsie. “On Stories Yet to Tell we do ‘Like a Lover’, that’s their lyrics.” Winstone knew ‘It Might Be You’ from the Charlie Haden version with Michael Brecker that features on their 2002 album American Dreams. It’s “the slight regret about something” she likes about the song, a feeling that pervades the album.

More than a decade on since their first concerts in Italy the experimental side of Winstone’s approach to jazz singing has been refined and adapted in this context over the years to the point now that the experimental process is harder to detect but it’s still there in her method however subtle. But Winstone when asked if she thinks experimenting with the voice as an improviser is more important than the interpretation of lyrics with a jazz ear says: “Interpretation is more important really, in the end; but when I started out I had an aim I wanted to feel as if I was part of the music-making process rather than just interpreting, which was mainly what I heard singers doing at the time. When I heard Miles Davis and Kind of Blue for some reason that spoke to me in a very deep way, and I felt I’d love to be part of a music like that. Somehow I suppose because it was modal music it seemed more open than the bebop that I’d heard before and I think I had it in my mind that I’d like to have a voice that had a facility of an instrument, it is an instrument, another sound in a group.” It's a sound that still resonates.

Photo of Norma Winstone: Wikipedia.

Interview: Stephen Graham