The formula is not complicated. A repertoire of great songs is judiciously chosen in close collaboration between Winstone and Nikki Iles. Following this formula, one totally affecting, thoughtfully arranged tune is followed by, guess what. Another. One soloist at the peak of his or her powers is followed by guess what. Another.
I’ve heard this band three times in the past year. Yes, I am unashamedly biased, pre-disposed, In fact I’m a complete goner. So what I needed from the outset was a reality check, I wanted to see how an audience hearing the band for the first time reacts. I didn’t have to wait long. The evening started pianissimo. One of Nikki Iles ‘ perfectly poised, featherlight piano introductions, to Anthony Newley’s Who Can I Turn To. No tricksiness, no mystery, the first phrase of the tune stated. But then moving on. Iles playing with complete freedom, yet with the kind of purpose, the forward momentum which makes you want, need to know where the music might be going next. Every member of the audience (virtually a full house) whose face I could see seemed completely drawn in.
And then a second reality check Enter Steve Watts on bass. My companion for the evening, a man steeped in every kind of music from early childhood, whispers in my ear : “that’s a real bass player.” Watts plays with jaw-dropping clarity, definition and presence. Real is indeed the right word. Watts is the kind of bass player you can always believe in.
Guitarist Mike Walker never fails. He’s a fascinating player to hear and to watch. He’s many-faceted, multi-dimensional. He is capable of rhythmic, melodic, harmonic excursions, of taking the listener on a journey over the edge, into the unknown. Yet last night, he seemed to want to concentrate on something different, I got the sense of a player centring himself in melodic invention, luring the listener in with his beauty of sound and total coherence of expression. You won’t hear me complaining.
The most consistently applauded player last night was Mark Lockheart on soprano and tenor saxophones. Some people tell me that jazz musicians “noodle” up and down their instruments, that this music belongs in cocktail bars. This is a misunderstanding which can be very, very simply cleared up. I recommend the following prescription: one minute of the compelling melodic lines of Mark Lockheart. And then, if still necessary, an ear syringe.
Drummer James Maddren is perpetually inventive, hears and reacts to everything, and completely belongs in this exalted company. And Grammy nominee, ECM artist Norma Winstone, known, and crowned with prizes in Germany as the Queen of European Jazz Singers, has a project which can, should – and undoubtedly will – grow in recognition and in stature.
The support band for the night was Froy Aagre, playing delicate, interesting music from her new CD Cycle of Silence (ACT Records). The set ended with a percussive tribute to the derelict factories of Birmingham, where Aagre was once a student, and during which my mind wandered. I started dreaming of a Soweto Kinch-Froy Aagre collaboration…..
I noted that on the same night, those who felt they needed a reality check on the future of classical music had gone to the Wigmore Hall to hear author Alex Ross, over from New York. I’m also told they were mostly disappointed. Try the wrong tree. Try Barking. You’re looking in the wrong places. The reality, the present, and the future belong to Printmakers.
There should be a Printmakers CD by the end of the year. The band is on again at Ronnie Scott’s tonight as part of Women in Jazz week. Support is the Janette Mason Trio