OHHHHH… and ohhhhh again…… to an exemplary and eagerly anticipated debut release from six leading lights of British contemporary jazz, collectively known here as The Printmakers.
Imagine the perfect vocal/instrumental sextet, and it might easily comprise Nikki Iles (piano), Norma Winstone (vocals), Mike Walker (electric guitar), Mark Lockheart (saxes), Steve Watts (double bass) and James Maddren (drums). Indeed, with a band name explained as a metaphor for the subtle variances in handmade printmaking, the combined artistry revealed in new album Westerly is as satisfying – in light, shade and hue – as any wander through a gallery of fine impressionism. Recorded amidst the painterly charm of the English Lake District, the compositional palette is beautifully balanced, and includes a trio of numbers by leader Nikki Iles with Norma Winstone as lyricist (a remarkable partnership).
The expansive ten-track sequence opens with a bubbling vocal interpretation of Ralph Towner’s A Breath Away, brought to life through Winstone’s authoritative storytelling – and immediately from this personnel there’s a sense of technical ‘safe hands’ and impassioned musicality. The lovelorn vocal of Under the Canopy (an Iles/Winstone original) delicately sambas to Mark Lockheart’s deeply-coloured bass clarinet and Nikki Iles’ trademark crystalline piano – a reminder of their rich contribution to Kenny Wheeler’s Mirrors; and Paul Simon’s jaunty I Do It For Your Love is whisked away into the most sumptuous of slow ballads, Norma Winstone bringing so much weight to Simon’s poetry (and here, as throughout the album, it’s the exquisite detailing which pleases – Lockheart’s subtle, characterful tenor and then Mike Walker’s illustrative guitar glissando on “the colours ran, the orange bled the blue”).
Impish improvisational colourwash precedes an airy rendition of John Taylor’s ‘O’ – strutting to dazzling, shared vocal and sax lines plus Lockheart’s own wonderfully demonstrative soprano creativity, its sunshiny and exploratory demeanour is irresistible. Nikki Iles’ Westerly is curiously imagined in Norma Winstone’s cryptically dark cowboy lyrics, evocatively portrayed through Iles’ accordion, Mike Walker’s pitch-bent guitar and bassist Steve Swallow’s campfire banjo tailpiece; and Winstone’s effortless vocal delivery confirms why she is one of British jazz’s national treasures. The same compositional duo produce lilting, Jobimesque Tideway, its brooding coastal atmospheres conveyed by woodwind breaths and guitar gull cries – at eight minutes, its easy to luxuriate in the broad guitar and tenor extemporisations and Winstone’s gliding lyricism.
The gems in this 68-minute treasure trove keep on turning up, Ralph Towner’s animated The Glide (as heard on Nikki Iles’ trio album, Hush) dancing to Winstone’s impressive high scat and Iles’ signature piano luminosity; and the obsessional story of Joni Mitchell’s Two Grey Rooms is quietly touching, the band supporting and enhancing its resigned lyric. In direct contrast, the Celtic feel of Nikki Iles’ High Lands tumbles and reels to wordless vocal and soprano sax, as well as soaring, rocky guitar from Walker and James Maddren’s pin-sharp flamboyance at the kit. To close, Steve Swallow’s countryfied The City of Dallas finds Winstone teasingly delivering the writer’s delightfully droll lines (“I hope the evening paper’s got a lot of good stuff-in-it… stuff-in-it”!) amongst a consummate-as-ever instrumental performance led by Mike Walker’s woozy guitar.
This, unquestionably, is chamber jazz whose elegance has to be heard to be believed, such is the shared empathy and depth of musical experience on show, all realised in a musical landscape that feels as magical as it is peerless.
Norma Winstone voice
Nikki Iles piano, accordion
Mark Lockheart tenor sax, soprano sax, bass clarinet
Mike Walker guitar
Steve Watts bass, banjo
James Maddren drums, percussion
Basho Records – SRCD 46-2 (2015)