Beautiful to the point of almost disappearing.
Norma Winstone’s new recording on ECM is subtitled Songs for Films, as it presents exceptionally delicate, chamber jazz versions of songs by Nino Rota, Michel Legrand, William Walton, Bernard Herrmann and Ennio Morricone written for a seres of classic movies. It is, like so many ECM recordings, beautiful to the point of almost disappearing. Depending on your mood or sensibility, it might fade into the background as you listen — as soundtrack music is often intended to do. On the other hand, this is a consistently lyrical and artistic take on a set of wonderful melodies, with each one sent through the prism of a unique band.
The core of Descansado is Winstone’s current trio: her vocals, the piano of Glauco Vernier and saxophone and bass clarinet from Klaus Gesing. This international band (Winstone is British, Vernier is Italian and Gesing is German) is interpreting music that is similarly international, with composers from the United States, France and Italy. And while it is convention to categorize Winstone as a “jazz” singer and to hear the sometimes-improvisatory web that Vernier and Gesing weave as being in that genre, something else is essentially afoot here.
The William Walton song “Touch Her Soft Lips and Part” (from Laurence Olivier’s 1944 version of Henry V) is a beautiful reading of a beautiful song, featuring a thrilling cello line from Mario Brunello. While the piano part is infused with jazz harmony, the performance is essentially a piece of chamber music. Gesing adds to delicate clarinet line that limns the harmonies and gently works as counterpoint to the cello line. Some added percussion comes from Helge Andreas Norbakken, but there is neither a sense of improvisation or rhythmic momentum. It is an art song, sweetened with a jazz musician’s sense of ballad playing. Similarly, “What is a Youth” (the exceptional Nina Rota song from the 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet that was a hit on American radio at the time in an altered form) moves from the famous ballad melody to a renaissance dance section clipped along by percussion, moving then to a largely spoken section that merges lyrics with cello. Vernier improvises some filigree around the edges, but you are left with the feeling that this music has a frozen quality, each note perfectly, permanently in place.
The most chillingly gorgeous example of this approach may be Winstone’s take on Michel Legrand’s “Vivre Sa Vie” (from the 1962 Godard film), in which chiming piano accompanies the mournful melody, played in hushed tones by soprano saxophone, just barely and wistfully harmonized by the singer’s wordless vocal. “Malena” is also successful. The melody, by Ennio Morricone, is breathtaking, and Winstone’s lyrics are poetic and also very fine. The performance (again featuring the trio, plus cello and percussion) surges with emotion — particularly when Gesing emerges with what actually sounds like a moment of felt improvisation: a soprano saxophone solo that briefly breaks the chilly atmosphere with a feeling of yearning.
The dilemma with recordings like Descansado is that these kinds of moods can be, perhaps, too precious and refined. The theme from Il Postino comes right on the heels of “Malena,” and it is also exceptionally beautiful, yes, with Gesing’s bass clarinet particularly shimmering, but the sweetness of the music may begin to cloy at this point in the program. Listened to in isolation, “Il Postino” is lovely as a daffodil, but a house full of daffodil arrangements, one on every surface in every room, is too much.
The flip side to this chamber loveliness are songs that bubble a bit more with life. The title track, “Descansado,” is built on a flowing piano line nudged along by hand percussion, with Gesing’s bass clarinet playing a lively obligato around the vocal. Listening to the trio’s version of “Lisbon Story” (from the soundtrack to the Wim Wenders film of that name) is even more of a contrast, with the groove percolating on percussion and a throbbing piano part. It is reminiscent of some of the world-jam grooves that the band Oregon used to get going on tabla and oboe back in the day. “Meryton Townhall” gets a similar groove going on another folk-ish theme, sounding like a vehicle for improvising on a British dance theme.
With more time for focus, listeners will find that Winstone’s lyrics, set to many of these movie soundtrack melodies that did not have lyrics originally, are worth enjoying. She is attentive to storytelling, vivid imagery and creating fluent content for these themes. She is, herself, a fine writer.
Winstone’s history with ECM Records and in the music, generally, is impressive. She was part of the unique band Azimuth with trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and her husband, pianist John Taylor, though they later divorced. Descansado is dedicated to Wheeler and Taylor, who both died in recent years. And perhaps that is what gives it such a slow, disconsolate sound overall. This is beautiful but elegiac music. And given that cinema soundtracks in 2018 are increasingly less likely to contain song-like melodies, perhaps it is a tribute to an era, too, that has passed.