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Jessye Norman: Back To Her 'Roots'

Soprano Jessye Norman's new CD, <em>Roots: My Life, My Song</em> was recorded in front of a live audience in Berlin. It features her take on jazz and gospel standards.
Soprano Jessye Norman's new CD, Roots: My Life, My Song was recorded in front of a live audience in Berlin. It features her take on jazz and gospel standards.

The effervescent Jessye Norman is one of the most celebrated sopranos, best known for singing arias on opera stages around the world. But opera lovers may be surprised to hear Norman's new CD, Roots: My Life, My Song, her first solo album in more than 10 years. Recorded live in Berlin, it's a cross-genre celebration of American music -- ranging from jazz standards to spirituals and gospel. Norman calls it the music of her heart.

"This music has been playing in my spirit and in my soul all of my life," she says, "and I was remembering all of the things I used to listen to as a child."

Roots begins with an African drumbeat, but soon moves on to iconic songs from some of the biggest names in American music: Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Ethel Waters and Nina Simone. Norman never met Ellington, but she did have the memorable experience of seeing him cross the street in New York, in her student days.

"Somebody said, 'Look, there's Duke Ellington,' and we simply stopped in our tracks and stared. No one would have thought of going up to him and actually saying anything. It was enough to know that this incredible spirit was actually walking across the road, and we could see him," Norman says.

Singing The Standards

Covering standards as popular as "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," "Stormy Weather" and "Mack the Knife" might intimidate some performers, but not Norman.

"I feel so at home with these composers, I didn't feel intimidated. I felt, in a different way, overwhelmed by the enormous choice there was," she says. "I don't believe in standing on the sidelines and seeing whether or not something's going to work. I believe in jumping into something and enjoying it."

Norman clearly enjoys the only nod to opera on the new disc, a jazzed-up version of the "Habanera" from Bizet's Carmen.

"The 'Habanera' comes from the folklore of Cuba," she says. "This isn't something that has a great deal to do, originally, with Spain, and certainly not with France. So the idea of it as a jazz piece is the most natural thing in the world."

Norman's approach to performance has changed over the years. Her vocal expression remains effortless. But she agrees that it does get harder to produce the high notes.

"The high note is always hard to hit," she says. "The vocal cords have to vibrate so very quickly. This takes a great deal of physical energy, as well as a great deal of mental concentration. It makes perfect sense that as one becomes older, that it would become more of an effort to make sure that those notes are absolutely where they are supposed to be. Things that are done in the wonderfulness of youth have to be done with more thought later on."

Norman, 64, has had a glittering career by any standards -- five Grammy Awards to go with time spent singing in the world's best opera houses. So what is there left to do?

"I've had a lot of lovely things happen to me in my professional life up to now," Norman says. "But one of the things that really just makes me coo is that, with my little jazz group, we are going to open the Montreux Jazz Festival on the Fourth of July this year. Isn't that just the coolest thing?"

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