Norma Winstone was born in London and first attracted attention in the late sixties when she shared the bill at Ronnie Scott’s club with Roland Kirk.
Although she began her career singing jazz standards, she became involved in the avant garde movement, exploring the use of the voice in an experimental way and evolving her own wordless approach to improvisation.
She joined groups led by Mike Westbrook, Michael Garrick and sang with John Surman, Kenny Wheeler, Michael Gibbs and John Taylor, and worked extensively with many of the major European names and visiting Americans.
In 1971 she was voted top singer in the Melody Maker Jazz Poll and subsequently recorded her own album ‘Edge of Time‘ for Decca, which although long deleted has now been re-released as a CD on the Disconforme label.
In the late seventies she joined pianist John Taylor and trumpeter Kenny Wheeler to form the group Azimuth, which was described by Richard Williams of The Times as “one of the most imaginatively conceived and delicately balanced of all contemporary chamber jazz groups“.
In this setting she combines the instrumental use of the voice with words, most of which she writes herself. Azimuth has recorded several albums on the ECM label (the first three of which have been re-issued as a CD boxed set).
Their CD ‘How It Was Then… Never Again‘ was released in May 1995, and received four stars in Down Beat magazine.
Her own legendary album ‘Somewhere Called Home‘ on the ECM label is widely considered to be a classic.
In recent years she has become known as a very fine lyricist, writing words to compositions by Ralph Towner, and Brazilian composers Egberto Gismonti and Ivan Lins (who has recorded her English lyrics to his song ‘Vieste‘). She has a special affinity with the music of Steve Swallow, and has written lyrics to many of his compositions, most notably ‘Ladies in Mercedes‘, which has become a standard.
Her voice has become an important part of the sound of Kenny Wheeler’s big band, and can be heard in this context on the ECM double CD ‘Music for Large and Small Ensembles‘ which also features John Abercrombie, Dave Holland, Peter Erskine and John Taylor.
Her CD ‘Well Kept Secret‘, recorded with the legendary American pianist Jimmy Rowles, featuring George Mraz on bass and Joe La Barbera on drums, was given a four star rating in Down Beat magazine. Here Norma sings a selection of rare jazz standards, including Jimmy’s famous tune ‘The Peacocks’ for which she wrote lyrics and re-titled ‘A Timeless Place‘. This piece has since been recorded by other artists including jazz singer Mark Murphy, and The Swingle Singers.
Her CD ‘Manhattan In The Rain‘, with pianist Steve Gray, bassist Chris Laurence and special guest saxophonist Tony Coe consists of unusual and classic standards, described by Dave Gelly in The Observer as “A delectable set of songs… masterly and enthralling“.
A CD of duo performances with pianist John Taylor entitled ‘Like Song, Like Weather‘ on the Enodoc label was described by Don Heckman of the Los Angeles Times as “…a superb example of state-of-the-art, imaginative, virtually beyond-definition singing“.
In July 2001, she won the title of Best Vocalist in the BBC Jazz Awards hosted by Humphrey Lyttleton at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall.
With American pianist Fred Hersch, she recorded a CD of Fred’s compositions with her lyrics: called ‘Songs and Lullabies‘, available in the US on Sunnyside, and in England on the Enodoc label. Vibraphonist Gary Burton makes a guest appearance on three tracks.
A recording ‘It’s Later than You Think‘, with the marvellous North German Radio big band directed by British writer Colin Towns, was released in Autumn 2006 to coincide with a British tour.
She was one of the stars of the acclaimed Gilles Peterson ‘Jazz Britannia‘ programme shown on BBC 2, from The Barbican which featured influential music of British jazz musicians from the sixties and seventies, along with contemporary jazz artists
A double CD ‘Amoroso…only more so‘, with The Stan Tracey trio and saxophonist Bobby Wellins was released on the Trio label to some five star reviews…
“This is standards-reinvention as it should be done” John Fordham, The Guardian.
“Winstone’s voice and Wellins’ highly vocalised tenor seem made for each other…. Sheer class” Ray Comiskey, The Irish Times.
She continues in the forefront of British jazz and was nominated again in the 2007 and 2008 BBC Jazz Awards for best vocalist.
She was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in 2007.
In 2009 she was awarded the Skoda Jazz Ahead Award in Bremen for her contribution to European Jazz.
Her current group is a trio featuring Italian pianist Glauco Venier and German saxophonist/ bass clarinetist Klaus Gesing.
The trio was formed in 2001 when Glauco and Klaus, who were playing as a duo at the time, asked Norma to guest with them at a concert near Udine, in Northern Italy, Glauco’s home town. A rapport between the three was immediately apparent. She realised that this was a group that had a very original sound which she wanted to develop. They made their first recording ‘Chamber Music‘, released by Universal, Austria, at the Artesuono Recording Studios in Udine in 2002. This is where they subsequently recorded their ECM album ‘Distances‘, which was given a four and a half star review in Downbeat Magazine, had wonderful reviews in the German and English press.
The CD received an award as top Jazz Vocal CD from Academie Du Jazz in France and its crowning achievement was a Grammy nomination in the Jazz Vocal CD category of 2008.
There have been two further ECM releases: “Stories Yet To Tell” in 2010 and “Dance Without Answer” in 2013 – both to much critical acclaim.
Norma also works with the Nikki Iles’ group “The Printmakers” comprising some of the UK’s finest musicians. They released a long-awaited album “Westerly” this year and perform mainly in the UK.