Tommy Halferty invites Norma Winstone review: a musical romance rekindled
By Cormac Larkin
The musical romance between Derry guitarist Tommy Halferty and London vocalist Norma Winstone began when they met as tutors on the now-legendary jazz summer school at the University of Ulster in the early 1990s. Like some exotic orchid, it’s a relationship that blooms only occasionally – as often as their busy schedules allow – but it’s always worth the wait.
Halferty is part of that pioneering cohort of Irish jazz musicians who heard the great Louis Stewart in the 1970s and realised that aspiring to the highest levels of artistry was possible for an Irish-based musician.
Over the years, the Derry man’s muse has led him from Stewart’s lucid be-bop to the post-Coltrane intricacies of electric guitarists such as John McLaughlin, John Abercrombie and Pat Metheny, and on to explore the tangled pathways that connect jazz with folk, Irish traditional, Brazilian and even Indian music.
But the acoustic guitar has always been a special part of his sound, and In Two, his 2000 acoustic recording with fellow guitarist Mike Nielsen, stands as one of the finest recordings in Irish jazz.
It is his acoustic instrument that the veteran guitarist takes up here to renew his friendship with Norma Winstone, one of the leading jazz vocalists of her generation. Since she emerged in the late 1960s, the London-born singer has been winning the admiration of her instrumental colleagues – including the great trumpeter Kenny Wheeler with whom she made a series of acclaimed recordings for the ECM label – for the musicality of her approach, using her voice as a wordless instrument in a way that has been hugely influential on the current crop of jazz vocalists.
But Winstone has a unique way with words too, and has written evocative and musically sympathetic lyrics for tunes by Steve Swallow, Ralph Towner and Fred Hersch; her 2003 recording with Hersch, Songs and Lullabies, deserves its place among the greatest piano and voice duos in jazz history.
Nobody does wistful like Winstone and she finds new depth in the Police frontman’s words
Earlier this year, Winstone and Halferty reunited for a short tour of Ireland, appearing at the Bray Jazz Festival in May to great acclaim, and were enticed into Ventry Studios in north Dublin by veteran jazz promoter and producer Allen Smith to finally put on record their special relationship. The results capture the easy rapport of two masters of the art of the song.
Pianist Kenny Kirkland’s beautiful Dienda, with lyrics by Sting, opens the album on a wistful note. Nobody does wistful like Winstone and she finds new depth in the Police frontman’s words paying tribute to his late pianist.
Lullaby of the Leaves by Bernice Petkere, one of the few female composers of the Tin Pan Alley era, is a chance for Winstone to showcase her unrivalled ability to improvise over standard chord changes, and on McLaughlin’s This is for Us to Share, Halferty delicately conjures those nuanced harmonic landscapes that he has spent a long career exploring.
Step for Lara, one of the album’s several stand-out tracks, matches the guitarist’s gorgeous composition for his granddaughter with tender lyrics from Winstone that glow with the wonder of childhood.
A beautiful version of James Taylor’s Long Ago and Far Away, another stand-out, is a reminder that Halferty and Winstone are part of the generation that heard Taylor, Joni Mitchell and João Gilberto and first learnt the power and authenticity of an artfully plied acoustic guitar and a soft, unmannered voice. Here is that spirit, alive and well in the hands of two masters of the art, a fitting evocation of a beautiful friendship in music.