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Nikki Iles / Karen Sharp Quartet

Nikki Iles / Karen Sharp Quartet, The Hive Music & Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 18/03/2017.

Photography: Photograph of the Iles / Sharp Quartet sourced from the Shrewsbury Jazz Network website [url=][/url]

by Ian Mann

March 21, 2017


As one would expect from musicians of this calibre the quality of the playing was excellent, this was a very classy performance.

Nikki Iles / Karen Sharp Quartet, The Hive Music & Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 18/03/2017.

The third Shrewsbury Jazz Network event of 2017 saw the association hosting a quartet co-led by pianist Nikki Iles and tenor saxophonist Karen Sharp. Although not a regular working band the group first came together in 2011 to record the album “Spirit”, a release on the Trio record label issued under Sharp’s leadership. A number of items from that record were to find their way into this evening’s set list. Joining the co-leaders were the Rolls-Royce rhythm section of double bassist Dave Green and drummer Steve Brown, a colourful pairing often sighted working in tandem at the much missed Titley Jazz Festival in neighbouring Herefordshire.

Following recent well attended evenings of contemporary jazz from groups fronted by saxophonist Tim Garland and guitarist Maciek Pysz tonight’s event represented a return to more mainstream virtues and the jazz standards repertoire. But variety is key to the work of SJN and once again they were rewarded with a sell out attendance which helped to create a warm and supportive atmosphere for tonight’s event.

Iles, a gifted and prolific composer in her own right, is particularly well regarded in Shropshire thanks to her collaboration with locally based poet Roger Garfitt and musician John Williams on the poetry and jazz suite “In all My Holy Mountain”, a celebration of the life and work of the Shropshire born writer Mary Webb, a recording that also features Sharp. Iles also leads her own jazz trio and composes for the all star group Printmakers, which she co-leads with the esteemed vocalist and lyricist Norma Winstone.

Meanwhile Sharp is perhaps best known for her tenure as a soloist with the late Humphrey Lyttleton’s band, although she has also released a total of five albums under her own name, “Spirit” being the most recent. Also an accomplished baritone saxophonist she is in great demand as a sidewoman for both big band and small group work. Among those with whom she has collaborated are vocalists Jacqui Dankworth, Tina May and Esther Miller, trumpeter/singer Sue Richardson and multi reed player Alan Barnes. Her big band credits include ensembles led by saxophonist Frank Griffith, trombonist Mark Nightingale, trumpeters Steve Waterman and Guy Barker and fellow bari player Robert Fowler’s Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band. She has also worked with leading Americans such as cornet player Warren Vache, saxophonist Scott Hamilton and guitarist Howard Alden. 

Green and Brown are both consistently busy musicians whose credits represent a veritable ‘who’s who’ of jazz. The hugely experienced Green must have featured on literally hundreds of recordings. Introduced by SJN’s Laurie Grey as “the ever happy Steve Brown” the drummer is one of those musicians who always plays with a smile on his face. His love for the music and generosity towards other musicians is boundless.

With the focus on standard material the majority of the performances were in the well established head/solos/head format beginning with an imaginative arrangement of “The End Of A Beautiful Friendship” with Sharp, specialising on tenor tonight, stating the theme and taking the first solo. Iles followed on the acoustic upright piano that SJN had hired specifically for this event. The presence of the instrument represented a considerable bonus and helped to emphasise Iles’ fluency and lightness of touch at the keyboard. Meanwhile Green and Brown provided a smooth and effortless swing with the bassist enjoying the first of many excellent solos and the drummer switching between brushes and sticks as required and delivering a series of lively brushed drum breaks towards the close.

“The Dolphin”, a tune associated with Stan Getz and a piece that appears on the “Spirit” album found Sharp sounding suitably “Getzian” as she stated the theme and returned later to solo, following the excellent Iles. Green’s bass feature was both melodic and articulate, all the while maintaining an innate sense of swing.

The quartet performed almost entirely acoustically with Sharp eschewing the use of a microphone for her sax. With this natural balance the group sounded excellent, particularly on slower material such as the Gershwin ballad “My Man’s Gone Now” which found Sharp’s tenor probing deeply but subtly ahead of further solos from Iles and Green.

The trio of Iles, Green and Brown introduced Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way” with Sharp later picking up the melody. The first solo went to the peerless Green with Sharp’s warm toned tenor later becoming more expansive prior to the final solo from Iles.

Sharp and Iles share a particular affinity for music in the style of the late Bill Evans. Fellow pianist Denny Zeitlin’s beautiful ballad “Quiet Now” was recorded by Evans and tonight you could hear the proverbial pin drop as the quartet delivered an achingly beautiful performance of the song. At first I though the co-leaders were going to play it as a duo as the piece began with the sound of Iles’ unaccompanied piano subsequently joined by Sharp’s tenor sax. Later languid bass and delicately brushed drums were added to the equation as Sharp took a gently emotive solo on the tenor and Iles again demonstrated her lyrical lightness of touch at the piano. Green’s melodic bass solo was also a delight. Tellingly the audience restrained themselves from applauding between solos, not wanting to shatter the mood of fragile beauty – always the hallmark of a truly successful ballad performance I feel.

Evans’ own “Showtype Tune” was altogether different in feel, quickly accelerating after Iles’ gentle solo piano intro to embrace a swinging, up tempo groove and exuberant, expansive solos from Iles, Sharp and Green and a series of sparky drum breaks from Brown. The audience loved it and gave the quartet an enthusiastic half time reception. 

The second set began as the first had ended with the music of Bill Evans and his aptly named composition “Interplay” . Although introduced by Sharp’s tenor the featured soloists were Iles and Green as they mirrored the roles of Evans and the influential bassist Scott La Faro.   

Cole Porter’s “Everything I Love” saw Iles leading the solos prior to a tenor and bass dialogue between Sharp and Green and a more conventional solo from the latter. Brown also featured with a series of brushed drum breaks.

Sharp was suffering from the effects of a heavy cold, but despite this, and also the fact that she was handling the announcements, she still played like an angel. Her fluency was particularly impressive on a delightful version of Jimmy Rawle’s “The Peacocks” as she and Iles combined gently exploratory probing with an underlying lyricism, subtly supported by the purr of Green’s bass and the swish of Brown’s brushes.

Thelonious Monk’s “Pannonica” was introduced by the duo of Sharp and Green prior to further solos from Iles, Sharp and Green.   

The quartet displayed a particular affinity for ballads and the slower pieces actually constituted some of the evening’s real highlights. A case in point was the rendition of Leonard Bernstein’s “Some Other Time” introduced by Iles at the piano. Sparse piano chording and brushed drums then supported Sharp’s tenor solo, her tenor sounding plaintive and vulnerable.

The set closed with the quartet raising the energy levels again via a rousing version of “Cherokee” with Brown’s rapidly brushed grooves and strategically placed percussive ‘bombs’ fuelling joyous solos from Sharp and Iles. Finally the irrepressible Brown was given his head for a closing drum feature that delighted the capacity crowd.

The deserved encore saw Iles taking the vocal mic to introduce her much loved and much recorded composition “Westerly”, a tune originally written for the “In All My Holy Mountain” suite and later chosen as the title track for the début Printmakers release. It’s also a piece that was recorded by tonight’s quartet for the “Spirit” album. With both John Williams and Roger Garfitt present in the audience it represented a particularly apposite choice to conclude this evening’s concert and constituted the only original item in the programme. The folkish melody was well served by the gentle lyricism of Iles and Sharp with sensitive support provided by double bass and brushed drums. Iles whistling of her own melody represented a particularly charming touch.

Although tonight’s performance was anchored a little too firmly in the mainstream for my current personal tastes it was still a hugely enjoyable event that was warmly appreciated by the receptive Shrewsbury audience. The goodwill extended by the crowd to the musicians was palpable.

As one would expect from musicians of this calibre the quality of the playing was excellent, this was a very classy performance. It’s always a pleasure to hear Nikki Iles play and I was also impressed with Sharp’s fluency and inventiveness as a soloist. I’ve seen her perform before in sidewoman roles, often playing baritone in larger ensembles, so it was good to see her taking the opportunity to stretch out in a small group setting. Meanwhile Green is the consummate bassist, a superb timekeeper with a great sense of swing and also an inventive and imaginative soloist. And the always swinging Brown is a great team member, a subtly propulsive drummer who always offers great support to his colleagues and enjoys his own moments in the spotlight.

A class act all round and another hugely successful event for SJN. Let’s hope the club can continue to retain these levels of public support for the rest of the jazz year.

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