Review: Anita Wardell and Norma Winstone at Songsuite Vocal Festival 2013

Norma Winstone, Anita Wardell. Songsuite 2013. Photo Credit Melody McLaren


Anita Wardell and Norma Winstone
(Songsuite Vocal Festival 2013, Sunday 23 June. Review by Matthew Wright)


This charming festival of jazz singing completed a second successful year at Jazz Cafe Posk in Hammersmith with a superb rendition by (arguably) Britain’s greatest living jazz singer, Norma Winstone, and the festival’s artistic director Anita Wardell. They were supported by singers participating in the Songsuite course Wardell had taught, who were understandably thrilled to be on the bill with Winstone. Their choice of repertoire was diverse; their singing highly enjoyable; and their enthusiasm galvanised the evening with the irresistible sense of fun that characterizes the best live music.

The festival was conceived by Wardell and promoter Tomasz Furmanek as a celebration of jazz singing, and platform for the highly impressive and (proportionately) numerous jazz vocalists from Poland and neighbouring countries. These included talented acts like Monike Lidke, Agata Kubiak, Alice Zawadzki and Brigitte Beraha.

Wardell set a daunting array of examples over the weekend, as tutor, director and singer; her performance, in the middle of the evening’s programme, was perhaps her most important. Her voice is a lithe and tender instrument, and she plays with words, rhythm and intonation with an excitingly delicate touch. Scatting displays her witty and intelligent sense of harmony, as well as her athletic vocal movement. Lacking, perhaps, the raw power of some singers, she compensates with delicacy and fluency, particularly in the lyrical bottom half of her range.

Her ability to scat, sing lyrics, or mix the two gives her an unusually wide range, and she impressed with both the Antônio Carlos Jobim’s bossa nova hit ‘Somewhere in the Hills’ and the harder bop edges of Bobby Hutcherson’s ‘The Kicker’. Wardell improvised on both tracks, dancing her way deftly through the chords with real jazz sophistication. Despite the gentleness of her tone, she sings with compelling expressiveness and drama.

She finished her set with a duet of the folk song ‘The Water is Wide’ with Winstone, a moving choice which advertised the complementary timbres and emotional potency of both singers. She was accompanied by Robin Aspland, who matched her variety and imagination with impeccable sensitivity and precision.

Booking Winstone was undoubtedly a coup for the festival. Her range, in every sense, is extraordinary; her voice can conjure all four seasons in an instant; her top register thrills with precision and purity, her mid-range is infinitely varied, and the lower register suggestively sumptuous but always under complete control.

Her choice of songs displayed a similarly commanding breadth. ‘Gold Mine’, by collective improvisers Take 6, a slalom of tongue-twisters negotiated with lightning dexterity, was followed by a fresh and unsentimental version of Paul Simon’s ‘I Do it for your Love’, a lustrous sound balanced by harmonic inventiveness.

She uses words and the harmony of scat equally well, meandering expertly among the harmonies while the words are sinking in. James Taylor’s ‘Shall I Tell you again’, Kenny Wheeler and Jane White’s ‘Everbody’s Song but My Own’, and Ralph Towner’s ‘Glide‘ all enjoyed this kind of brilliant alternation.

Perhaps the most complete display of her skills came in Steve Swallow’s song ‘Ladies in Mercedes’, using Winstone's own lyrics. With a deliciously lilting, swinging rhythm, compelling internal rhyme and an attitude poised irresistibly between satire and celebration, it had the audience hooked from the start, wondering where these glamorously coiffeured ladies’ next chauffeured destination would be. She ended on a sinking note, like an organ whose bellows have sprung a leak. Throughout the set, she ended wittily; so often an anticlimax, she has perfected the art of the ending.

She was accompanied beautifully on tenor sax by Mark Lockheart, and on piano by Gareth Williams. Williams‘ piano was expertly placed, though he rarely had the chance to stray from the background; Lockheart, on sax, was a model of refinement and delicacy, modulating both the volume and the phrasing so that it twined perfectly around Winstone’s vocal line.

This festival was a joyous event that said so many wonderful things about the state of jazz today, particularly its ability to bring all levels of jazz lovers together for a celebration of so many kinds of wonderful song. So successful has the festival been that plans are afoot, it was hinted, for some kind of expansion next year. Bring it on.

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