Over the past 45 years, record producer Manfred Eicher has led the ECM label from triumph to triumph, assembling a catalogue of impeccable quality while spreading the fame of Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, and Arvo Pärt, among many others.
One thing the former Berlin Philharmonic bassist is not known for, though, is a deep knowledge of popular culture—which means that Norma Winstone and her bandmates might have gotten away with something when they included a reflective version of “Bein’ Green” on the singer’s latest ECM release, Dance Without Answer.
“I don’t think he realized where it came from, you know,” the singer says with a laugh, on the line from her U.K. home. “I don’t think he realized that Kermit sang it on Sesame Street. I mean, he liked it—but I doubt he knew where it came from.”
Winstone sounds anything but froggy-throated on the kids’-show classic, although she does capture the more wistful side of the world’s most beloved amphibian quite nicely. By the way, it wasn’t the only Muppets tune considered for inclusion on the new release: Winstone notes that both pianist Glauco Venier and reed specialist Klaus Gesing share her affection for the late Jim Henson’s oeuvre. “Klaus, in particular, had a whole raft of Muppets things to suggest,” she says.
Only “Bein’ Green” made it onto the final playlist, however, although that didn’t compromise its range. Dance Without Answer also includes guitarist Ralph Towner’s “A Breath Away”, with lyrics by Winstone; the Friulian folk tune “Ator Ator”; Madonna’s 1986 hit “Live to Tell”; and the English folk legend Nick Drake’s “Time of No Reply”.
What seems to be a bit of a grab-bag approach, Winstone allows, is exactly that. “At one time we thought about doing contemporary material, almost to the point of doing an album of pop songs,” she explains. “And then there was the idea of themes from films, which I liked, but then we thought, ‘Oh, too many people have done that before.’ So we ended up assembling some things from films and some more contemporary songs, and this is what we finished up with. So there wasn’t really a concept, although we tried.”
Nonetheless, Dance Without Answer plays out as a suite of songs about the paths one doesn’t take in life, or about the people one leaves behind.
“One of the titles for the album that I was thinking of was Roads Less Travelled, Paths Not Taken, from the Robert Frost poem,” Winstone reveals. “That does occur, in my writing anyway, because there are a few people that I’ve left behind or that I’ve lost in my life. Not always romantically, but, you know, like a brother. So I suppose that comes out sometimes. I don’t intentionally do it, but subliminally it’s there.
“Or else I just like desolate music,” she adds—but her trio’s warm interplay argues otherwise.
Norma Winstone, Klaus Gesing, and Glauco Venier play a TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival show at Performance Works on Saturday (June 21).