CD Review: Norma Winstone - Edge of Time

Norma Winstone - Edge of Time (*)
(Dusk Fire DUSKCD108. CD Review by John L Walters)

To listen to Norma Winstone’s long-deleted debut album Edge of Time is to disappear down a sonic rabbit- hole. Your destination? The quixotic wonderland of British jazz of the late 1960s and early 70s. The oddly chosen stereo placement, the splashy drums, the extravagant musicianship, the youthful incoherence belong to a different space and time. The slightly dodgy album art, however, makes it look more like a lost psychedelic concept album.

Winstone’s White Rabbit (or Mad Hatter) is producer Peter Eden, who was responsible for a slew of impressive and memorable Brit-jazz albums of that time, notably a series of raw but energetic Westbrook albums, several projects built around saxophone giant John Surman, and Michael Gibbs’s eponymous 1970 debut masterpiece – possibly the best album of its era.

This fertile scene had its genesis in Ronnie Scott’s short-lived ‘Old Place’ in Gerrard Street, Soho, which for a brief time provided a low-rent incubator for the brightest and best new jazz talent, creating a creative vortex that maintained momentum for many years after its closure.

The Old Place put a spring in the heels of Graham Collier Music, the Westbrook band and many more adventurous London musicians. The ripples spread far and wide, to musicians and listeners who were too young or too remote from Soho. Before long we had Nucleus, Lifetime, Soft Machine, the Brotherhood of Breath, Keith Tippett, John McLaughlin and Dave Holland (and their influence on electric Miles) and the early stirrings of an independent mode of European jazz that would find expression via the ECM label.

Edge of Time represents the flowering of that scene better than many more ‘focused’ albums of the late 1960s / early 70s, because Winstone, writing most of the lyrics, worked with several composer-arranger-collaborators: Surman, John Taylor, John Warren and Neil Ardley. The tracks are played by a freewheeling ensemble that could go in many directions, sometimes all at the same time.

Winstone’s vocals mutate from cut-glass articulation of her own lyrics, such as the rather stern admonition to Enjoy This Day to slightly bonkers ululations that soar high above the ensemble freakouts.

There are some intriguing tunes in the collection, not least Ardley’s arrangement of Mike Taylor’s Song of Love and the subtle Songs for a Child by Winstone and John Taylor. The title track, with its rippling repeated phrases for vibes and electric piano, parallels the contemporaneous interest in deliberately repetitive systems music that also informed Ardley’s Kaleidoscope of Rainbows, Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells and Surman’s later adventures with electronic accompaniment.

The stand-out track is John Warren’s Perkins’ Landing, with lyrics by Winstone, which is perhaps best described as a jazz orchestral tone poem. This is a deliciously multi-textured composition that extracts an extra level of rich invention from a talented band that includes trombonist Malcolm Griffiths and the mighty Chris Laurence on bass, together with ensemble writing that echoes Gil Evans, Gibbs and Ardley at their best. Winstone’s unforced, wordless improvisation floats dreamily over Warren’s arrangement, spacious and relaxed. The rabbit hole leads eventually to the sublime.

In her sleeve-notes, Winstone expresses some misgivings about the re-release, writing that her singing is ‘now closer to the way I wanted to sound’. And it’s true that there are better Winstone performances on disc, better recorded. But Edge of Time represents what she calls ‘a vital time for jazz’. If nothing else, the magnificent Perkins’ Landing’retains its power as an almost magical coming-together of composition, arrangement, vocal performance and loose-limbed improvisation.

Complete personnel - Norma Winstone: Voice; Henry Lowther, Kenny Wheeler: Trumpets; Alan Skidmore, Mike Osborne, Art Themen: Saxophones; Gary Boyle: Guitar; John Taylor: Piano; Chris Pyne, Malcolm Griffiths, Paul Rutherford: Trombones; Chris Laurence: Bass; Tony Levin: Drums; Frank Ricotti: Vibraphone. Recorded 1972.

(*) This review is from a backlog of unreviewed CDs. LondonJazz News has recently moved to a new system of CD review commissioning, co-ordinated by Catherine Ford.

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