Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton UK
Pianist Nikki Iles said it was her first visit to Wolverhampton; vocalist Norma Winstone said she thought it was hers, but couldn’t be sure at her age… I reckon everyone in last night’s audience hoped it wouldn’t be their last. After hearing this band at the mac in Birmingham two years ago and their new album, Westerly (review here), officially released tomorrow, I went along to the Arena with high hopes. I was not disappointed.
Naturally, most of the evening’s generous two sets came from the album. A Breath Away opened the concert, just as it opens the album, but was given an extended introduction by guitarist Mike Walker and the band was able to settle in with longer solos. We also heard The Glide, like A Breath Away a Ralph Towner tune with lyrics by Winstone; Paul Simon’s I Do It For Your Love; John Taylor’s O; Iles’ and Winstone’s Tideway; Joni Mitchell’s Two Grey Rooms; and Iles’ High Lands. The encore was Steve Swallow’s City Of Dallas.
The extras not on Westerly were Stars, a tune of Fred Hersch’s with lyrics by Winstone; Clockmaker, an old favourite of guitarist Mike Walker’s; and a new piece by Iles and Walker – only its second live performance, Norma told us – called Inner Way. Or should that be In A Way?
The joys for me were plentiful, including Winstone’s superb scat solo on The Glide, Iles’ solo on Clockmaker, saxophonist Mark Lockheart’s and Walker’s solos on High Lands, Lockheart’s and Winstone’s altissimo abstractions in the intro to O, and Walker’s solo intro to Stars.
And then there is Winstone’s way with a lyric; she seems to bring out subtleties of interpretation and emotional depth that even the composers – I’m thinking Simon and Mitchell here – could not manage on their original versions. And then there is Iles’ comping which is so tasteful and so supportive of the soloist. And then there is the joy that I hear in every thwack, scrape and brush from James Maddren’s drums – a joy that lights up not only his playing but his face too. And then there is the subtle swing and steadfast anchoring of Steve Watt’s bass. Like Iles and Maddren he is the kind of support player it must be a dream to solo over.
And talking of dreams, this front line of Winstone, Lockheart and Walker is certainly my fantasy turned real. Add some exceptionally fine original writing and there really is nothing left wanting.
Well, there is one thing. If I have one gripe – and this really is clutching at critical straws! – it’s that we haven’t heard nearly enough of this band. And what we have heard has taken an age. I heard nearly all last night’s material two years ago, two of the Iles tunes were on her 2003 album Veils, and the Walker song is an old one, too (this is not a complaint about quality, please be reassured; it’s one of quantity).
I realise all these players have loads of other commitments, whether leading their own bands, playing in others or teaching, but there is something very special about The Printmakers, that needs to be nurtured. I suspect it might have something to do with Iles’ exemplary (if extremely modest!) leadership, but it looks and sounds like a really happy band, and it is also one of those magical compounds that seems to suit – and challenge – all its constituents. I really hope that we will hear a lot more of it in the future. Inner Way is an encouraging sign. In A Way?
Categories: Live review