A track on Spotify, released in October, has accumulated 94 million plays and opens with 64 seconds of ethereal and otherworldly music. The music features a pulsing analog synthesizer accompanied by sporadic piano and trumpet, while a gentle female voice tells a story of traveling endlessly through darkness and blackness.
The track “The Tunnel” from Azimuth’s 1977 album is followed by Drake and Yeat rapping on “IDGAF”, the second most played track from Drake’s UK/US No 1 album, “For All the Dogs” (their less ethereal intrusion begins with the line “Fuck the bitch, I make her sweat”). Jazz vocalist and lyricist Norma Winstone, now 82, reflects on her old group’s inclusion on one of 2023’s top rap albums while sitting in her spare room in Deal, Kent. She admits that she had heard of Drake before, but his music was not her usual preference.
She received an email through her website and then had a Zoom call with Drake’s management, which made her realize their interest. She admits, “I was pretty clueless.” She jokingly adds, “I asked, ‘Can’t this rapper just email me the track as an attachment?’ I didn’t realize how famous he was.” She then shared the news with her son, Leo Taylor, who plays drums for Hot Chip and the Mercury-nominated band The Invisible. “He was shocked and said, ‘Mom!'” She smiles. “And that was the end of it.”
Winstone is not an unknown artist discovered by Drake, but a well-established British jazz musician with over 30 albums released. He has been awarded honorary fellowships from the Trinity Laban Conservatoire and Royal Academy of Music, as well as an MBE. Born in a financially struggling family in Bow, east London in 1941, Winstone’s parents were passionate about music. They would often wait in line for cheap tickets to Sadler’s Wells operas and saved up to provide their daughter with piano lessons on her grandmother’s instrument. The family lived together in a rented house until Winstone was 10, unable to secure a council property.
At the age of eight, Winstone had a realization while watching Lena Horne perform “The Lady Is a Tramp” in the 1948 movie “Words and Music”. Her second epiphany came when she heard Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue”. She was drawn to this type of music, but at the time, there were no opportunities for jazz education and she didn’t know how to pursue it. However, fate intervened in the 1960s when a colleague overheard her singing at work and invited her to a jazz event in East Ham. Winstone asked to sing a few songs with the trio and they later invited her to join them permanently. This was the beginning of her jazz career.
In 1971, Winstone was voted as the jazz singer of the year by Melody Maker. Her early recordings are highly sought after by crate-diggers. She made her first appearance on Joe Harriott’s Hum Dono in 1969, along with Indian guitarist Amancio D’Silva. Trunk Records has recently re-released this album, but an original copy is currently listed on Discogs for £2,200. Three years later, Winstone released her debut album, Edge of Time, which was known for its experimental sound and her fluttering staccato vocals. A near-perfect condition copy of this album can now be purchased for £495.
Winstone effortlessly incorporated her wordless vocal improvisations with instruments. She then wrote lyrics for The Tunnel, which originated in 1977 as a loop created by her ex-husband, pianist John Taylor, using his new EMS Synthi AKS synthesiser. Winstone recalls, “It had a haunting, otherworldly sound, with a hint of darkness. Perhaps that’s where the line ‘travelling forever in the dark’ came from. I like my lyrics to reflect the music without being too specific. It’s always intriguing when there’s an element of mystery and the song is about something else.”
Taylor brought his music to Manfred Eicher, the head of ECM Records in Munich. Eicher suggested adding trumpeter and flugelhorn player Kenny Wheeler to the mix, which transformed Azimuth into a band. They went on to release five albums, with their final one being 1995’s How It Was Then … Never Again. Winstone’s career has been diverse, including collaborations with big bands and orchestras, as well as covering songs by Madonna, Harry Nilsson, and Nick Drake on her 2014 album Dance Without Answer. She is currently preparing a performance of French chanson and folk songs at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. However, nothing has surprised her as much as the use of a sample from Drake’s music.
She is unaware of how he discovered The Tunnel, she mentions. When I propose that he may have come across it on Floating Points’ 2019 Late Night Tales compilation, she grins and mentions that she is familiar with Floating Points, also known as British producer Sam Shepherd, through Leo. “He once mentioned that his preferred album was a lesser-known one: Kenny Wheeler’s Music for Large and Small Ensembles. Leo responded with: my parents are featured on that.”
The song The Tunnel, produced by Drake or possibly Bnyx, Sebastian Shah, and Harley Arsenault, had some of its piano portion edited out, but the majority of it remains intact. The artist is happy with this decision. She frequently gets asked if she will become wealthy from the song’s success, to which she responds that she is unsure, but it would be nice. She is still in awe that a piece of work can exist for so long and then suddenly gain recognition, and she is grateful that Drake was able to put his own spin on it without ruining it. She reflects with a smile, “He has truly made it his own journey.”