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Nikki Iles



by Ian Mann

March 22, 2012


A lovely album that embraces both the mainstream and the contemporary and which captures Nikki Iles' delicate strengths superbly.

Nikki Iles


(Basho Records SRCD 38-2)

Pianist and composer Nikki Iles remains one of the relatively unsung heroines of British jazz despite a highly productive career that has seen her perform with many leading British and international musicians in a variety of contexts from jazz orchestra to piano trio.  Although she has recorded prolifically with others, particularly vocalist Tina May and saxophonist Martin Speake, her work as a leader is sparsely documented which ensures that this new trio release is a particularly welcome addition to her discography.

“Hush” represents Iles’ first piano trio recording since 2004’s Basho release “Everything I Love” which was made with the Canadian rhythm section of bassist Duncan Hopkins and drummer Anthony Michelli. These two plus Martin Speake crop up again on 2010’s excellent Secret Quartet album “Bloor Street” (Edition Records), a highly democratic record featuring the writing of Iles, Speake and Hopkins (reviewed elsewhere on this site).

“Hush” also has an international flavour with Iles teaming up with American born drummer Jeff Williams, a musician who now divides his time between New York and London, and US bassist Rufus Reid. Iles had worked previously with Williams in Martin Speake’s group and met Reid when both were commissioned to write for the contemporary group Renga, an aggregation of musicians drawn from the ranks of The London Philharmonic Orchestra and The London Jazz Orchestra. Despite Reid’s sideman credits reading like a who’s who of jazz it still comes as something of a surprise to learn that this album represents the first time that he’s played with the similarly well travelled Williams. Iles journeyed to the States for the recording which was carried out at Dae Bennett’s (son of singer Tony) studio in Englewood, New Jersey with later mastering taking place in London. Iles brings three tunes to the date but the real focus is on the interpretation of modern standards by some of jazz’s leading composers among them Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Ralph Towner and Kenny Wheeler. It’s a beguiling mix of the familiar and the original with the trio exhibiting excellent interpretative skills and stamping their own identity on the material. Considering that Reid and Williams had never played together before their joint understanding is mutual and instinctive and fits Iles playing to a “T”. The pianist is an inventive and imaginative soloist with a sublime touch at the keyboard and an inherent good taste. Iles’ liner notes speak of the “unforced interaction and intimacy” between the three players, qualities that are clearly audible throughout this recording. This was a rapport that was generated remarkably quickly, the album was recorded over the course of just two days in September 2010, yet nothing sounds forced or hurried and with ideas seeming to flow organically.

Iles also offers brief insights into her choices of material beginning with Kenny Wheeler’s modern day standard “Everybody’s Song But My Own”. As Nikki explains “I have grown up listening to Kenny. I love his music and I try to include something of his whenever I play”. Delicate solo piano introduces the piece with Iles’ tenderly embellishing the now familiar melody. It’s a credit to the trio that they manage to find something new to say about a composition that has become a very familiar item in recent years. Reid sometimes takes over the melody, his tone huge and woody yet pliant and supple. He also features as a soloist alongside the flowingly inventive Iles. Williams crisply detailed drum and cymbal work offers subtle propulsion, punctuation and comment.

Iles dedicates her original “Meditations” to her sometime colleague guitarist Mike Walker. She describes the piece as “a gentle free exploration” and this description, plus the tune’s title, is borne out in the music. Rolling piano chords and wisps of melody convey a suitably thoughtful, meditative mood with Williams’ exquisite brush work on cymbals and snare the perfect accompaniment. There’s a feeling of genuine dialogue between the pianist and drummer.

Miles Davis’ “Nardis” is an old Iles favourite and a popular vehicle for improvisers. I have an old vinyl copy of a 1975 ECM album titled “Eon” by American pianist Richard Beirach which includes a rather splendid twelve minute exploration of “Nardis” from a trio that includes a young Jeff Williams at the drums. Surprisingly it’s one of the few items in the ECM back catalogue to be out of print, particularly so as it stands up very well after all these years and actually sounds remarkably contemporary. However I digress. Iles comments that she’s added a “few more harmonic twists” to the old warhorse and certainly this is an engrossing performance with Iles soloing expansively, first thoughtfully and then more effusively. Reid’s bass feature is effectively a dialogue with the excellent Williams and provides a bridge into a second half that introduces Iles’ “twists”.

Another classic from the ECM songbook is Ralph Towner’s “The Glide” which originally appeared on the 1984 Oregon album “The Crossing”. One of Towner’s most enduring compositions the piece still forms part of Towner’s solo repertoire and later became a song when the British singer Norma Winstone added a “vocalese” lyric to Towner’s tune. It was Winstone’s version that inspired Iles interpretation as the pianist skilfully turns the piece back into an instrumental with sympathetic support from her stellar rhythm section. Reid’s solo is a marvel of warmth and dexterity and Iles playing is positively joyous.

Iles combines Michel Legrand’s “You Must Believe In Spring” and Rogers & Hart’s “Spring is Here” to form a seasonally inspired homage to Bill Evans, her original and continuing inspiration. Iles mirrors Evans’ thoughtful lyricism with her solo piano introduction to the Legrand tune and following their arrival Reid and Williams stay true to the reflective mood with Williams’ quietly understated brushwork reminiscent of one time Evens trio member, the recently departed Paul Motian. This is a lovely tribute to Evans and a wonderful encapsulation of Iles’ core musical values of taste, intelligence and an underlying lyricism.

Among Iles frequent collaborators has been the veteran British saxophonist Stan Sulzmann, a shamefully underrated musician and composer. Iles title track was written with Sulzmann’s breathy tone in mind and to these ears also captures something of Stan’s quiet quirkiness. It’s an excellent piece of contemporary jazz piano writing that allows Iles plenty of room to stretch out. Reid’s deeply resonant solo, underscored by Iles’ sensitive piano chording is a particular treat.

Iles pays homage to another British saxophonist (albeit of a slightly younger vintage) with the inclusion of Julian Arguelles’ “Hi Steve”, doubtless a dedication to the composer’s percussionist brother. The tune first appeared on Julian’s 1990 solo début “Phaudrus” where the pianist was the great John Taylor and it’s to Iles credit that she steps into JT’s shoes with considerable aplomb. Reid and Williams excel again, too.

Although scheduled towards the end of the album Dave Brubeck’s more familiar “In Your Own Sweet Way” was the first piece the trio played and acted as something of an ice breaker. The piece has perhaps more of an orthodox “jazz” feel than the rest of the album but Iles still manages to find something fresh to say in a probing solo with Reid again contributing strongly the now obligatory bass solo.

The album closes with a final Iles original, “The Incense Of Colour”, a piece inspired by the light from the stained glass in Chartres Cathedral. Like the earlier “Meditations” the piece is relatively freely structured and has a suitably contemplative feel that sees Reid making brief but atmospheric use of the bow. Eventually a more formal melody emerges, one of Iles’ most beautiful, and the pianist is superbly shadowed by Williams’ mallet rumbles and cymbal shimmers on a piece that evokes a definite sense of place.

“Hush” is immaculately recorded and captures Nikki Iles’ delicate strengths superbly. The contribution of Reid and Williams is also immense, the former’s tone warm, rounded and supple and a good foil to Iles’ Bill Evans inspired lyricism. Williams is one of my favourite “interpretive” drummers, his cymbal work an absolute delight as always.

Having initially been brought up on rock music where, certainly since The Beatles, the emphasis has always been on original material (although perhaps in these blighted X Factor days the focus is beginning to shift) I’m sometimes inclined to dock half a star for albums that rely widely on outside material. However the sheer quality of the performances here ensures that “Hush” is saved from such a fate. This is a lovely album that embraces both the mainstream and the contemporary and the musicianship is exemplary throughout. This is a trio that sounds as if it’s been playing together for years and although it’s never likely to become a regular working unit let’s hope that a one off tour or maybe just a London Jazz Festival appearance is a possibility. In the meantime “Hush” is a record that deserves to increase Nikki Iles’ profile and establish this UK jazz stalwart even more firmly on the jazz map, both here and abroad.   


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