MAC, Birmingham UK 31-05-2013 (Peter Bacon , The Jazz
Back in the 1950s and the couple of decades following, the US government sent their jazz musicians round the world to spread the cultural message about America’s own “classical music”.
It struck me, listening to Nikki Iles’ Printmakers band that if the British
Council or whoever wanted to share with the world the jazz of this country,
then this would be the ideal band. If feels like the most modern and vital
vehicle for all those essential core qualities of the best British jazz.
Yes, I know that this is, as in other British arts, a core which includes all
kinds of elements that are not native to Britain – the vital strand imported
from Canada in the form of Kenny Wheeler is just one example of this – but
it’s the way that the jazz musicians of these isles interpret and incorporate
those strands, whether bossa nova from Brazil or a little Country from
America, that matters.
The band as Nikki Iles on piano, Norman Winstone on vocals, Steve Watts
on double bass, Mark Lockheart on saxophones, James Maddren on drums
and Mike Walker on guitar, and a more cohesive band, one united in a
common aim, it is hard to imagine.
The material came from Iles, Winstone and Walker within the group, and
Wheeler, Fred Hersch, Joni Mitchell, Steve Swallow, Paul Simon and Ralph
Towner outside of it. It made for a rich two hours of music, conveyed with a
great deal of warmth as well as, of course, the combined art and skill of six
superlative musicians. This is not head-improv-head stuff. Iles builds into
the arrangements a flow that rises and falls, breaths in and out, and the tunes
fill out like landscapes in four dimensions.
If there were, for me, two clear moments when a chill of goosebumps spread
across the skin – they were in the band’s profound reading of Joni Mitchell’s
Two Grey Rooms and in Mike Walker’s gently celebratory The Clockmaker
– the rest of the concert was never less than thoroughly absorbing, other
highlights being Iles’s new tunes Under The Canopy and Tideway.
Iles shows impeccable taste in everything she does, whether it is choosing
fellow musicians to work with, those supportive chords behind another’s
solo or the musical line of one of here own improvisations; she also has such
a great touch on the keys.
Winstone is not only a marvel when blending wordlessly with the other
melody instruments, but she is the most subtle of interpreters of a lyric. I
remember watching an acting masterclass in which Michael Caine was
showing students how almost imperceptible a facial expression of emotion
needed to be for up-close film acting; Winstone does the same kind of thing
with a lyric. There is no broad over-emoting here, and it is so much more
effective as a result.
Watts is one of those almost invisible bassists, who doesn’t draw attention to
himself but is content just to make everyone else sound even better, while
Maddren… well, he not only plays the beats and rhythms, his drums sing the
melodies too, and acknowledge the harmony. You can see and hear his
pleasure in making music.
Lockheart builds his solos, especially the tenor ones, into the most solid of
structures, all counter-balance and matching flying buttresses… They soar
but they are always safely grounded, too. And just the thought of hearing
Mike Walker play is enough to make me grin. He clearly loves this band and
this music and, when he wasn’t putting together solos of wide-ranging
styles, he was doing a marvellous near-funk chug. His solo on the encore,
Steve Swallow’s dry, witty, Country-flavoured The City Of Dallas was so
perfectly judged I had to hold my breath through the whole thing.
The good news is that this band is going into the studio to record before
long. Let’s hope we get to hear them in concert again soon – but not before
they have toured the globe, letting everyone out there know just how good
British jazz can be.
(Pizza Express, Dean St. 5th June 2013.
Review by Alison Bentley for London Jazz)
‘It’s the longest birthday anyone’s ever had,’ laughed pianist Nikki Iles on
this final gig of her 9-date 50th birthday tour. The reverent audience
spanned all ages, from the 20s to the 70s. They mirrored the age-range of
the 6-piece band, brought together by Iles, ‘… finding kindred spirits that
lead you on.’
Singer Norma Winstone is well-known as an interpreter of Kenny
Wheeler’s music. His Enowena (from his work for 19-piece orchestra) was
a spine-tingling slow piece, exquisitely arranged, Wheeler’s classic
dramatic intervallic leaps transferred to wordless voice and piano. Mark
Lockheart’s expressive tenor solo was Joe Henderson-like in its husky
lyricism and gentle overblowing. Everyone’s Song But My Own is a modern
Wheeler standard, here in 4/4, more upbeat. Iles’ piano solo had some of
Bill Evans’ Romantic feel, with taut rhythm, sweet but never saccharine.
Winstone recorded with guitarist Ralph Towner in the 1970s, and is still
inspired by his tunes to write lyrics. ‘There’s a place not very far, where you
can be whoever you wish,’ she sang, as A Breath Away moved from a
delicate opening to a rock-edged stirring solo from guitarist Mike Walker.
(Norma: ‘Wow!’) Drummer James Maddren responded energetically to
Walker’s solos, smiling all through. His own solo had several rhythms
happening at once- scalding rolls among washes of cymbals. Steve Watts’
rich bass was emphatic and empathic, rooting everything throughout.
Winstone’s witty lyrics to Towner’s The Glide had complex rhythms that
matched the jaunty, beguiling melody, her pure-toned vocal solo creating
arabesques across the chords. The strong singing lines of Iles’ solo were
very satisfying- every note sounded in the right place, but never predictably
so. Winstone’s lyrics to Fred Hersch’s Stars showed how she can sing
intimately about awe-inspiring, even chilling themes: ‘The wondrous winter
sky that casts its spell/ Warm your hand in mine.’ Iles’ lucent piano recalled
The band drew on singer-songwriters’ work: their take on Paul Simon’s I
Do It For Your Love echoed Bill Evans’ version, but wringing out all the wry
humour. Winstone’s breathy voice faltered on ‘splash of tears’, but never
lost control- she let the audience do the emoting, as in Joni Mitchell’s
ballad Two Grey Rooms, a story of unrequited love. Lockheart’s Shorter-esque
soprano glided over Maddren’s shifting brushes.
There were tunes by Mike Walker and Steve Swallow. The former’s
Clockmaker began with John Martyn-like looping effects and remarkable
solo guitar improvisation- later duetting with tenor over rollicking drums ad
a loose Latin groove. Swallow’s song The City of Dallas was the evening’s
country-tinged coda (‘Sweet dreams everyone when you sleep’),with a
bluesy guitar solo recalling Scofield’s gospel recordings.
The rapport between Iles and Winstone felt very strong, as did the songs
they had written together. Under a Canopy was inspired by a David
Attenborough programme about fish that swim 200 miles, only to circle
twice and go home again. ‘Sounds like us,’ quipped Winstone. Lockheart’s
bubbling bass clarinet brought a aquatic feel to the delicate Latin feel. Iles’
piano sounded totally natural, as if she was part of the instrument.
Tideway, written after a beach walk near Winstone’s house, wrought a
sense of mystery: some Ravel-like piano, mallets on cymbals like waves,
guitar and sax cries marking ‘…the swoop and curve of the seabirds’. The
voice emerged from the mist, and the brain stopped analysing, entranced
by the mood. In contrast, Iles’ folk-influenced Highlands was pure fun,
showing how much these musicians appreciated each other, enjoying the
wild dynamics of the drums and fine hammer-on guitar among the Scottish
‘We’ll write a song for generations to come,’ sang Norma Winstone, herself
a major influence on generations of musicians. Printmakers have made
their mark, putting their individual stamp on each tune, and can only
continue to be loved by audiences for many years to come .
MIKE COLLINS SOUTH WEST JAZZ ( EXTRACT)
This a fabulous band of musicians who weave improvisations of real melodic
beauty over complex and angular structures. Mike Walker’s gorgeous tune
Clockmakers (is that one of my favourite tunes ever? .. maybe!) evoked a
dazzling solo from Nikki, flowing, melodic line building on flowing melodic line.
Mike Walker himself pulled out solo after a solo but a standout was on Kenny
Wheeler’s Everyone’s Song But My Own. He found rhythmic figures and phrases
that seemed to surprise even him. And flowing around, up and over it all,
blending beautifully were Norma Winstone’s voice and Mark Lockheart’s
saxophones. It was all propelled unfussily but with huge energy and subtlety by
Steve Watts’ bass and the drums of James Maddren. Just in case it all sounds a
bit solemn, there was more than a twinkle in the eye as they played us out with a
sort of rocky, scottish reel cum folk song written by Nikki giving Mike Walker the
chance to rev up his rock chops on guitar before whipping off his glasses for the
last time as if to say ‘what do think of that then?’ . They followed it with a wonky
country style Steve Swallow song. It’s a testament to this band that they have
quite a reputation with no recordings out there (notwithstanding the individual
reputations of all them), but I hear a rumour that they may be putting that right
soon. Can’t wait.