Review: Nikki Iles' Printmakers at Pizza Express - Final Concert of Birthday Tour

Printmakers. Photo Credit Brian O'Connor

Printmakers
(Pizza Express, Dean St. 5th June 2013. Review by Alison Bentley)

'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 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 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 to come for their musicianship and good company.

See also our interview with Nikki Iles about the tour and the forthcoming Printmakers recording

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