Monday, March 5, 2012

Get to Know: Nikki Iles


Nikki Iles is another UK jazz player who is relatively unknown in the United States. I can only hope that her new piano trio recording, "Hush" (2012 Basho Records), with Rufus Reid on bass and Jeff Williams on drums, two well known players here, will bring her the visibility she deserves.
Iles was born in England in 1963, and has progressed steadily into the front rank of British jazz musicians since she first broke onto the scene in the early 1990s on recordings led by Anthony Braxton and his Creative Jazz Orchestra, and by the Mike Gibbs Orchestra. She studied at The Leeds College of Music in the mid-80s before eventually settling in London to pursue her career as a jazz pianist. In clubs, she worked at times with Scott Hamilton, Iain Ballamy, Art Farmer, and Teddy Edwards among others.
Besides performing, she is a widely respected teacher, and she has acted as a tutor at numerous workshops and summer schools around the world, as well as maintaining active links with most of the London colleges.

"Hush" is only her latest, and perhaps her best, record outing to date. Before talking about it, I wanted to highlight four other Iles recordings in my collection, and in particular her close relationship to another outstanding jazz player from England, altoist Martin Speake. The four discs, all excellent, in order of release dates are as follows:

  • The Tan T'ien"The Tan Tien" (FMR Records 1997), a duo album with Iles and Speake, which intersperses wholly improvided pieces with a number of standards like "Turn Out the Stars" and "Ugly Beauty".
  • Secret"Secret" (Basho Records 2001) with Martin Speake, Nikki Iles, Duncan Hopkins, and Anthony Michelli, the latter two being long-standing members of Iles trios. Secret contains songs written by the team, with the exception of "The Thrill is Gone" and is a fully realized recording of great expressive writing and play.
  • Everything I Love"Everything I Love" (Basho Records 2004) is an Iles' trio recording, with a two songs penned by Iles and songs by Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Bill Evans, and others. This is a very balance set and one that demonstrates Iles' expressive use of the entire keyboard, a delicate touch, and an ear for reworking old melodies with fresh chordal arrangements and intricate fingerings.
  • Secret - Martin Speake, Nikki Iles, Duncan Hopkins and Anthony MichelliBloor Street" (Edition Records 2010) is a return to the quartet featuring the Iles' trio with Martin Speake, with all the music written by Speake, Iles, or Hopkins. This is music played by friends which is clear from the interplay of the instruments and communication between the players.

HUSH"Hush" features songs written by Iles,  Julian Arguelles, Ralph Towner, Kenny Wheeler, Dave Brubeck,  Brubeck, and Rodgers and Hart. It is also the first disc in a long while that features two new partners, in this case Reid on bass and Williams on drums, which came about after Iles played with Reid for a project with the London Philharmonic's 'Renga' ensemble.  Having played with Jeff Williams in the past, Iles recorded this album in New York in September 2010.

And what a lovely album it is, full of incredibly expressive play, gentleness for the Wheeler opus that opens the recording, "Everybody's Song But My Own", a more upbeat tempo for "Nardis" and then some upbeat interpretations for "In Your Own Sweet Way' and "You Must Believe in Spring." Iles brings imaginative improvisations to each tune, reinterpreting them with fresh ideas and new shapes. Her own music is deeply moving with beautiful melodies and sympathetic play by her partners. "Meditation" is particularly wonderful, a reflective piece of quiet dignity with a melody that remains with you long after the music ends. Iles sound and touch  is reminiscient of Bill Evans, highly impressionistic, deceptively simple, but always driven forward with a subtle but omnipresent underlying rhythm. Reid brings his strong and deep bass tones to the recording and has some outstanding solo parts, while Williams provides a wide range of colors as well as a similar quiet emphasis on forward motion. .

Nikki Iles is a pianist not to be missed, and her new CD "Hush"  would provide a wonderful introduction to her music.

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