“In the old days, this band would have had the words “All-Stars” in their name. Every one of them is a leading figure in British contemporary jazz. Together, they create 10 evocative sound-pictures of places and times. It’s remarkable how just five instruments and voice can suggest space and depth as they do.” Dave Gelly, The Observer
The word supergroup is common currency, especially in the rock world. Jazz, of course, has its fair share of supergroups too. Sometimes, one supergroup comes along that really is very special indeed.
The Printmakers is such a group. The group formed at the instigation of Steve Mead at The Manchester Jazz Festival several years ago and since then has gone from strength to strength.
Award winning Nikki Iles is one of the heroines of British jazz. She has made an invaluable contribution to the jazz scene in this country and beyond, while also making a very personal musical statement in many groups, not least her own superb Anglo-American trio with Rufus Reid and Jeff Williams.
Grammy nominated and ECM recording artist Norma Winstone MBE, pioneering innovator of the voice, has been a leading light in European music for many years. She collaborated with Kenny Wheeler and John Taylor in Azimuth, described by Richard Williams as “one of the most imaginatively conceived and delicately balanced of all contemporary chamber jazz groups“. She has also worked with Fred Hersch, Steve Swallow, Jimmy Rowles, Mike Gibbs and Ralph Towner. She has had a resurgence recently, with three superb award winning ECM releases in collaboration with European musicians, Klaus Gesing and Glauco Venier.
Mike Walker is rightly regarded as one of Europe's most exciting guitarists. He has enthralled audiences for many years with his inspirational playing - always passionate, dangerous and highly inventive. He has worked with some of the most innovative musicians in the world including George Russell , Kenny Wheeler, John Taylor, Julian Arguelles, Bill Frisell, and Mark-Anthony Turnage. He is also a member of another jazz supergroup – The Impossible Gentlemen (with Gwilym Simcock, Steve Rodby and Adam Nussbaum).
Mark Lockheart came to prominence in the mid-1980s with the influential big band Loose Tubes. The collaborative band Perfect Houseplants (formed in 1992) proved to be one of Mark’s most important projects. In the mid-90s Mark toured with Django Bates’ Delightful Precipice and recorded with June Tabor, Anya Garbarek, Robert Wyatt and Radiohead. In 2003, he joined the ground breaking group Polar Bear (twice nominated for the Mercury Music Prize) and went on to collaborate with Mark Anthony Turnage, most recently in his opera, Anna Nicole. His most recent recording as leader is ‘Ellington in Anticipation’, a unique and original take on the music of Ellington.
Steve Watts has been the all important linchpin in many significant bands in British Jazz, not least Django Bates’ Human Chain, and with Kenny Wheeler and Stan Sulzmann. He has also worked with Iain Ballamy and Kirk Lightsey and Joe Lovano.
It is difficult to find a modern British jazz album these days that doesn’t feature James Maddren on drums. He is hugely in demand, working with the leading lights of his generation such as Kit Downes and Gwilym Simcock. Brought together by their collective love of song, The Printmakers’ music defies category and sets out to cross the boundaries that traditionally separate jazz, folk and the contemporary music world. Westerly, released in May 2015 on Basho Records, has already attracted critical acclaim and its release ranks as one of the most significant jazz events of 2015.
'Iles is one of the most refreshing figures to have emerged in the UK in recent times, with a liquid sound and supple, obliquely resolved phrasing as an improviser"
John Fordham, The Guardian
'Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s pretty much the line-up of your dreams, and a band that sums up all that is finest in British jazz in 2015. A life-enriching album for sure, and an unmissable gig.'
Review from The Mac Birmingham
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 Hersch himself. 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 an 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 dance rhythms.
‘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.