The cellar of Pizza Express Jazz Club, Dean Street was filled with an expectant audience as several members of the British jazz vanguard walked modestly through the door, one by one. So began the official launch gig for The Printmakers’ anticipated debut album Westerly. The band focuses on the art of song across the genres, and has actually been around for some time, having been nominated for the Best Group Category at 2010’s Parliamentary Jazz Awards. This stellar line-up of Norma Winstone, Mark Lockheart, Mike Walker, Nikki Iles, Steve Watts and James Maddren represents several generations of outstanding UK jazz talent, led by the inimitable Iles on piano.
The phrygian, Spanish-tinged sounds of ‘A Breath Away’ by Ralph Towner set an atmospheric tone with solos from Lockheart, Walker and Iles. However, it was obvious that this was no ballad song-a-thon, the core rhythm section of Watts and Maddren simmering with groove from the start. Building on this solid foundation, Walker and Iles weaved sophisticated textures to support Winstone’s ethereal voice, which was often doubled by Lockheart. ‘Under the Canopy’ came up second, the writing credits of which are shared by Iles and Winstone. An impressionistic intro that recreated sounds of the rainforest served as a testament to The Printmakers’ sensitive, thoughtful group approach and to the individuals’ mastery of their instruments (and vocal cords!).
By the end of the first set the audience had witnessed some memorable musical moments. The repertoire included several tunes from the album as well as Mike Walker’s beautiful composition ‘The Clockmaker’, but in terms of solos, guitarist Walker was outstanding throughout. His melodic invention and intuitive sense of form shone through as he constructed solos that always succeeded in cranking up the energy level while also forging a their own sense of internal coherency. Walker would captivate listeners with a distinctive motif or line and then develop his solo by blending in new phrases, taking that initial idea – not to mention the audience – on a virtuosic journey through harmony, rhythm and time. That isn’t to say that there weren’t other gripping solo flights, such Lockheart’s touching melodic explorations on Paul Simon’s ‘I Do It For Your Love’, or Maddren’s epic drum solo on John Taylor’s haunting tune, ‘O’.
The second half commenced with another deeply impressionistic piece, ‘Tideway’, which accurately recreates sounds of the British seaside, right down to the wistful call of seagulls imitated by Walker’s guitar. The penultimate tune ‘High Lands’ stood out above all, effectively blending a 9/8 Celtic folk theme with massive rhythmic drive from Maddren and full-on solos from Lockheart and Walker. After such an exciting ride it was a bit lacklustre, albeit touching, when the band brought the evening to a close with Steve Swallow’s pop song ‘City of Dallas’. While it is a beautiful song somewhat reminiscent of Jim Croce’s writing (with a twist), it leaned too far over to the world of pop for it to feel like a fitting closer.
Overall, this was a thoroughly enjoyable set, The Printmakers demonstrating that they are a masterly yet oddly intriguing band within today’s jazz scene. This is because the group comprises some of the most proficient performers in British jazz, and yet the balance of this project is firmly on the expression of songs as opposed to extended solos or technical feats. On this basis The Printmakers may surprise or even disappoint jazz fans who want to see longer solos and instrumental acrobatics, and some might say they run the risk of falling into a no-man’s land that defies expectations but fails to appeal to a jazz audience. However, this would be a great shame, as one can hear wonderful playing from some of Britain’s best jazz artists, not to mention a deeply creative, almost orchestral approach to the collective sound that totally serves the music, or more accurately, serves the song.
– Marlowe Heywood-Thornes