It is a joy to hear how the duo mix the traditional and contemporary in their own distinctive voices.

ECM 2811 / 651 9138

Norma Winstone (voice); Kit Downes (piano
Recorded April 2023

It has been a while since Norma Winstone has had a new album on ECM and now it appears that in addition to Outpost of Dreams there is another in the pipeline that has already been recorded and being prepared for release.

The recent re-issue of Azimuth as part of the label’s Luminessence  series in March this year would have brought Winstone’s name back in focus, as if it should ever be far from one’s musical mind and ear, and it is good to hear Norma forging ahead with another new musical collaboration.

A collaboration that arose out of pure chance when Norma’s regular pianist Nikki Iles was unavailable for a gig. Aware of Kit Downes but never having played with him before, Winstone hired the Downes and the two musicians quickly found common ground, along with some that neither had trodden before.

The pianist seems to have instinctively grasped what he can bring to Norma’s music, and the vocalist’s intuition over the years in picking musical partners has never failed her. Over the course of ten songs, there are no less than four original compositions by the duo, and new versions of two traditional songs.

The original music seems to offer up endless possibilities for improvisation, and while the majority of the tracks are kept to five minutes or less there is a real sense of adventure and discovery in the music, and one can imagine how these pieces may be opened up in a live performance.

The opening number by the Downes/Winstone partnership is ‘El’ is for the pianist’s baby daughter and the lyrics are tender and handled delicately by Winstone. Downes’s playing here is lyrical and sparse, and this is trait that he retains throughout allowing each note and phrase to carry its own meaning and weight.

Another original is ‘The Steppe’ that opens with Norma’s wordless vocal and Downes’s lyrical playing that appears to gather a gentle momentum as the piece progresses and is matched by the vocalist at every turn and phrase, while ‘Nocturne’ is an expansive piece for piano with the lyrics taking on a darker hue. Downes’s opening to ‘In Search of Sleep’ is quietly majestic prior to Norma’s spoken to lyrics.

Quite rightly Norma revisits work by John Taylor and Ralph Towner to whose compositions that she has provided the words in ‘Fly The Wind’ (which some may know under Taylor’s alternative title of ‘Wych Hazel’and ‘Beneath An Evening Sky’ respectively, but it is the reading of Carla Bley’s ‘Jesus Maria’ that surprises and delights the most. Downes’s arrangement of the tune is beautiful and emotive as are the words penned by Norma who was unaware that Carla had also written lyrics for the composition.

If the music played by these two remarkable musicians has a timeless feel to it, this connection to present and past is captured in the traditional ‘Black Is The Colour’ that Norma had never sung before, and ‘Rowing Home’ in which Norma writes lyrics to ‘Ro Hamåt’, a Scandinavian folk tune. It is a joy to hear how the duo mix the traditional and contemporary in their own distinctive voices.