Since its release in October, the song has been played 94 million times on Spotify. The track starts with 64 seconds of spacey and atmospheric music. Accompanied by a pulsing analogue synthesizer and intermittent embellishments from a piano and trumpet, a gentle female voice narrates a voyage: “Journeying endlessly in the absence of light / From darkness to complete blackness.”
This excerpt from Azimuth’s 1977 album track, “The Tunnel,” is followed by Drake and Yeat’s rap on “IDGAF,” which is the second most played track from Drake’s UK/US No 1 album, “For All the Dogs.” The lyrics, “Fuck the bitch, I make her sweat,” mark the beginning of their less ethereal intrusion. Jazz vocalist and lyricist Norma Winstone, now 82, recalls, “I had heard of Drake, but his music was never really my style.” She reflects on her former group’s unexpected inclusion on one of the biggest rap albums of 2023, during an autumn afternoon in her spare room in Deal, Kent.
She received an email through her website and then had a Zoom call with Drake’s team, which informed her of their interest. She admits she was not fully aware of the situation, saying, “I was a bit naive.” She even asked if the rapper could simply send the track as an attachment, not realizing his level of fame. She then shared the news with her oldest son, Leo Taylor, who performs live drums for Hot Chip and the Mercury-nominated trio, the Invisible. “He was shocked!” she says with a smile. “And that was the end of it.”
Winstone is not a newcomer to the music scene, having been a well-established jazz artist from Britain with over 30 albums released. He is also an honorary fellow of the Trinity Laban Conservatoire and the Royal Academy of Music, as well as being awarded an MBE. Despite coming from a poor background in Bow, east London in 1941, Winstone’s parents were passionate about music and even saved up to provide their daughter with piano lessons on her grandmother’s instrument. They all lived together in a rented house until Winstone was 10, unable to secure a council property.
When Winstone was eight years old, she had a major realization while watching Lena Horne perform “The Lady Is a Tramp” in the 1948 film “Words and Music.” Her second epiphany came when she heard Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue.” She knew then that she wanted to be involved in this type of music, but at the time there were no formal avenues for learning jazz. However, fate intervened in the early 1960s when a colleague overheard her singing at work and invited her to a jazz event in East Ham. Winstone took the opportunity to ask the trio if she could sing a few songs, and they later invited her to join them. From that moment on, her involvement in jazz continued to grow.
In 1971, Winstone was voted as the winner of Melody Maker’s jazz singer poll. Her earlier recordings are highly sought after by crate-diggers. She first appeared on the album Hum Dono in 1969, which featured Jamaican saxophonist Joe Harriott and Indian guitarist Amancio D’Silva. Trunk Records has re-released the album, but an original copy can be found on Discogs for a staggering £2,200. Three years later, her debut album Edge of Time was released, showcasing her experimental style and unique staccato vocals. A near-perfect copy of the album can now be sold for £495.
Winstone effortlessly blended her wordless vocal improvisations with instruments, and then added lyrics to The Tunnel. The song originated in 1977 as a loop created by her husband, John Taylor, on his newly acquired EMS Synthi AKS synthesiser. Winstone recalls the otherworldly and slightly sinister sound of the loop, which inspired the lyrics “travelling forever in the dark”. She prefers her lyrics to reflect the music without being too explicit, leaving room for mystery and interpretation.
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, and from that point on, Azimuth became a band. They went on to release five albums, with their last being 1995’s How It Was Then … Never Again. Winstone’s career has been diverse, including collaborations with large ensembles and orchestras. In 2014, she covered songs by Madonna, Harry Nilsson, and Nick Drake on her album Dance Without Answer. Currently, she is preparing for a performance of French chansons 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.
According to her, she is unaware of how he discovered The Tunnel. When I propose the possibility that he may have learned about it from Floating Points’ 2019 Late Night Tales compilation, she grins and mentions that she is somewhat acquainted with Floating Points, also known as British producer Sam Shepherd, through Leo. She recalls Leo mentioning that his preferred album was a lesser-known one titled “Kenny Wheeler’s Music for Large and Small Ensembles,” to which Leo responded, “My parents are featured on that album.”
The artist known as Drake, or possibly his team of producers Bnyx, Sebastian Shah, and Harley Arsenault, decided to remove some of the piano from the beginning of “The Tunnel,” according to the singer. However, they kept a lot of the original elements, and she is very happy about that. People often inquire if she will become wealthy from the song’s success. She responds by saying that she is unsure, but it would be nice. She is still amazed that something she created has been around for so long and now has been reimagined by Drake without losing its essence. She smiles and remarks that he has made it his own, like going into his own personal tunnel.