Norma Winstone

Live at Roccella Jonica

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Once again we have to leave it to the Italians -- and their kindred spirits Kenny Wheeler and John Taylor -- to provide a sextet setting that is unusual in its makeup, dedicated to improvisation, yet is tender enough to highlight the subtlest colors and emotions in a piece of music. With an unusual front line consisting of two trumpet/fl├╝gelhorn players -- Wheeler and Paolo Fresu -- a drummer known for his muscular approach to free jazz and total improv (Tony Oxley), a pianist who has a reputation for his inventive lyricism (John Taylor), and a bassist who is on virtually every important Italian jazz recording (Paolo Damiani). Combine this band with a ghostly siren like Norma Winstone and you have the makings of two things: a horrifying mess where an ensemble is merely made of individuals or a group whose every utterance is a musical moment. The latter is true here. With Wheeler's intense melodic sensibilities and his arranging skills that leave no nuance unexplored, and Fresu's ability to move back and forth between the spacious textures of modal jazz and free, there are few limits. Three of the four pieces here are long stretch-outs, leaving not only room for improvisation but, more importantly, group interaction, where everybody is unified by the world-class rhythm section creating spaces in time for the band to slip through. They do actually give the impression of extending time and space. The two Wheeler compositions here ("Foxy Trot" and "The Widow in the Window/Mark Time") are the most satisfying. They also serve to pace the band in such a way that by the time they reach the last half of the set, they and the audience are ready for anything. Wheeler writes in sections, or even "movements," where jazz themes are varied and full of airiness, but opaque as to their origins. With Taylor quoting from the lyric with his usual elegance, he opens a door for Damiani first, then Wheeler, and finally, as wide it can be opened before slamming shut again, Winstone shimmies in, singing her wordless vocal improvisations to the intertwining trumpets engaged in intervallic chromaticism. And Oxely skates around the kit with brushes before revving it up for sticks. Wheeler and Damiani move from a minimal modal vibe to cool to post-bop and back with grace and inimitable aplomb. Yes, the audience goes crazy. You will too.

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