‘My son said to me: what?! Mom!’ Norma Winstone, the British jazz singer sampled by Drake | Jazz

A The song, which has been streamed 94 million times on Spotify since its release in October, begins with 64 seconds of cosmic, atmospheric music. Over a bubbling analog synthesizer and occasional piano and trumpet flourishes, we hear a soft, feminine voice narrating a journey: “Traveling Forever in the Dark / Darkness into Blackness.”

This sample from Azimuth’s 1977 album The Tunnel is followed by Drake and Yeat rapping on IDGAF, the second most played track from Drake’s #1 UK/US album For All the Dogs (“Fuck the bitch, I make her sweat”, is the beginning of their less ethereal intrusion). “I had heard of Drake, but his music wasn’t the kind of music I listened to,” says jazz singer and songwriter Norma Winstone, now 82, in her guest bedroom in Deal, Kent, reflecting on the music of his old band. inclusion on one of the biggest rap LPs of 2023 on a fall afternoon.

An email sent via her website, followed by a Zoom call with Drake’s management, made her aware of the interest, she explains. “I was quite naive,” she laughs. “I asked, ‘Can’t this rapper just send me the song as an attachment?’ I wasn’t thinking about its size. Then she told her eldest son, Leo Taylor; he plays drums live for Hot Chip and Mercury-nominated trio The Invisible. “And what did he say?! Mom!” She smiled. “So that was it.”

Winstone is not an artist plucked from obscurity by Drake, but a pillar of British jazz who has released more than 30 albums, holds honorary fellowships from the Trinity Laban Conservatoire and the Royal Academy of Music, as well as an MBE. Born into a poor family in Bow, east London, in 1941, Winstone’s parents were great music lovers; they queued for cheap tickets to operas at Sadler’s Wells and arranged for their daughter to take piano lessons owned by her grandmother (they all lived together in a rented house, unable to obtain property municipal before Winstone was 10 years old).

Winstone’s first epiphany came at the age of eight, watching Lena Horne sing The Lady Is a Tramp in the 1948 film, Words and Music. Hearing Kind of Blue by Miles Davis was his second. “I thought that was the kind of music I wanted to grow into, but there was no process back then, no jazz education – I had no idea how you could do that .” Coincidence intervened in the early 1960s when a colleague heard him singing in the office, inviting him to a jazz evening in East Ham; Winstone asked the trio if she could try out some songs, and later they asked her to join them. “It went from there.”

“It’s always nice when there’s a bit of mystery, when a song is about something else”… an undated photo of Winstone from earlier in his career. Photography: courtesy of Norma Winstone

Winner of Melody Maker’s Jazz Vocalist of the Year poll in 1971, Winstone’s early recordings are a crate digger’s dream. Its first appearance was on Hum Dono in 1969, by Jamaican saxophonist Joe Harriott and Indian guitarist Amancio D’Silva. Trunk Records reissued it; A the original is listed on Discogs for £2,200. Three years later came his debut album, Edge of Time, wildly experimental, full of his thrilling staccato sound. An almost new copy today: £495.

Seemingly effortlessly blending her wordless vocal improvisations with instruments, Winstone later added lyrics to The Tunnel, which began in 1977 as a loop put together by her then-husband, pianist John Taylor, on his new album. EMS Synthi AKS synthesizer. “It seemed so supernatural, but also slightly sinister,” she recalls. “Perhaps this is where the phrase “traveling forever in the dark” comes from. I like my lyrics to echo something in the music without being too specific. I think it’s always nice when there’s a bit of mystery, when a song is about something else.

Taylor took the track to Manfred Eicher, head of the Munich-based ECM Records label, who recommended introducing trumpeter and flugelhorn player Kenny Wheeler into the mix; Azimuth grew into a band from that point on, and five albums followed, until 1995’s How It Was Then…Never Again. Winstone’s career has remained varied, including working with big bands and orchestras, and covering Madonna, Harry Nilsson and Nick Drake on Dance Without Answer in 2014. She is currently preparing an evening of French chanson and folk songs at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, but few things surprised her as much as the Drake sample.

She doesn’t know how he discovered the Tunnel, she said. When I suggest he may have heard it on Floating Points’ 2019 Late Night Tales compilation, she smiles, adding that she knows a little about Floating Points – aka British producer Sam Shepherd – through Leo . “He once mentioned that his favorite album was obscure: Music for Large and Small Ensembles by Kenny Wheeler. Leo replied: My mother and father are on this.

Drake – or maybe his producers Bnyx, Sebastian Shah and Harley Arsenault – cut “some of the piano at the beginning” of The Tunnel, she adds, “but he left a lot of good stuff, and I am very happy. .” People keep asking her if she’s going to get rich. “And I say, I don’t know, but it would be nice, wouldn’t it?” She’s still amazed that “something could exist that long and suddenly be detected, and Drake did his own thing with it, but didn’t destroy it.” ” She smiles. “He just entered his own tunnel.”

Norma Winstone plays Songs of Auvergne with the Guildhall Jazz Orchestra and Choir at Milton Court, London, on December 4.

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