Singers often describe duo performances as a wanton act of exposure, a setting that presents the voice naked and open for close inspection. Two new duo albums by veteran improvisers offer a different lesson. Clad in resplendent ingenuity, Norma Winstone and Jay Clayton leave plenty to the imagination on their persistently inventive excursions with longtime creative partners.
In Concert reissues a barely heard 1999 cassette (look it up, kids) from an unrehearsed 1988 duo set by Winstone with fellow Brit John Taylor (1942-2015), the radiantly lyrical pianist with whom she collaborated in various settings over five decades (before, during, and after their marriage). The album captures two bountiful spirits at play, starting with a ravishing eye-of-the-emotional-hurricane rendition of Leonard Bernstein’s “Lucky to Be Me.” An accomplished lyricist who’s turned several instrumental jazz tunes into standards (see: Jimmy Rowles’ “The Peacocks”), Winstone offers some of her best work on her own pieces, like her sardonically supple slalom through Steve Swallow’s “Ladies in Mercedes.” Her lyrics fit the jagged contours of Ralph Towner’s “The Glide” to a T, as the melody coaxes her up into her stratospheric piping register. Her mysteriously poetic words conjure a very different, becalmed space on Towner’s lustrous ballad “Celeste.” Known for her exquisite wordless vocals, Winstone also shines as a footloose standards interpreter, as on her gorgeous thematic medley of “’Round Midnight” and “Midnight Sun.”
Clayton—who, like Winstone, has recorded a revelatory duo album with Fred Hersch—joins forces with friend and compatriot Jerry Granelli on Alone Together. Where Winstone’s encounter with Taylor is playful and breezy, Clayton and Granelli’s impromptu creations lead to a strange and often surprising program of soundscapes, recitations, and songs. She sets the scene with e. e. cummings’ poem “Because It’s Spring,” recited gravely while Granelli’s tolling bells hover in the background (he’s heard on a variety of percussive implements). Clayton declaims Anne Waldman’s “Fast Speaking Woman” over crisp trap-set tattoos. The album’s centerpiece is Ornette’s “Lonely Woman,” a song that’s become something of a signature for Clayton; this spare and regal version makes it clear why. “Wild Is the Wind,” a tune that lends itself to passionately restrained drama, serves as another striking vehicle, with Granelli’s minimalist trap-set accompaniment and Clayton’s canyon-deep vocals. Her artful use of electronics stands out on “Swing Thing,” a slowly evolving piece featuring her chorused wordless vocals. She’s at her most experimental on “Birds and Artists,” a piece that includes recitation of a poem by Brenda Bufalino and that feels like watching clouds drift by on a balmy afternoon. It’s not an essential addition to Clayton’s discography, but as we say in the East Bay, it’s hella interesting and well worth checking out.
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