Interview with Nikki Iles

Nikki Iles (above)is in big demand as a performer. And that is an understatement.

On the biography page of her well-maintained website, I tot up no fewer than eleven projects/partnerships/bands. The people she works with are invariably the best in Britain. I sense that all it will take is someone from the worldwide top flight to clock what Iles can do, and the secret will really be out.

As an educator Iles is also in demand. She works at the Royal Academy of Music in London… but also at three other colleges. And at the Global Music Foundation Summer Schools on the continent, and for Issie Barrett’s National Youth Music Collective. Iles currently has compositions and educational work in course of publication by both the Associated Board and by Oxford University Press.

This range, this consistent level of achievement is daunting. But Iles as a person is not.

When I decided to try to track her down to talk about forthcoming London gigs, I needed to catch her at a moment when I knew we could talk for a few minutes.

We arranged to speak during her five-hour car journey to a Friday evening gig in Birkenhead as part of Tina May’s Piaf project. From which she was due to drive on through the night ….to run a day’s educational workshops….a further 260 miles down the road, in Norwich.

First, knowing that Tina May was in the car next to her, I asked about their work together. The May/Iles collaboration now goes back thirteen years, with countless gigs together, and there’s about to be a fifth album together. This is a partnership and a supportive friendship through good times and bad, and it clearly works well for both of them both on and off the stage. And , as a listener, for me.

In the last week of March, Tina May and Nikki Iles will appear in three different contexts in London, on successive days of the same week. This collaboration is not edgier-than-though, it’s not offensive or in-your-face, nobody’s dressing up in space outfits…which might not make any of the events news-worthy. But this is a partnership which doesn’t stand still. They are always exploring new repertoire, finding the new in every phrase.

The most tried and tested of the three evnings is May’s and Iles’ Piaf show with Julie Walkington on bass and Karen Street on accordion. It is touring round the country, and will be at the Pigalle Club in Piccadilly. “It’s my only all-girl band, a different vibe” reflects Iles. The French really appreciate Tina May properly. She sings the title role of Kurt Weill’s Lady in the Dark in theatres with a capacity of up to 5,000. That’s how good she is.

Another night that week, a different show, which would be my pick of the three. May and Iles are doing an album launch at the Pizza in Dean Street with Stephen Keogh on drums and Phil Donkin on bass. The songs? An eclectic, unusual selection: Iles mentioned to me arrangements of Johnny Mandel tunes, of Kenny Wheeler, and “Peace” by Horace Silver.

And, again in the same week, there’s the trio collaboration with Tony Coe, one of the most challengingly original and unpredictable improvisers in the world. The remarkable reedsman that Basie wanted in 1965- but never got.

We also talked about Iles’ really interesting touring project coming later in the year , for which she is currently writing and arranging. It is called “The Printmakers.” The title is a reference to people who leave a mark. The line-up is stunning: Manchester “guitar hero” as Iles calls him , Mike Walker, plus ageless singing legend Norma Winstone, and that complete saxophonist Mark Lockheart, with Iles joined in a near-ideal rhythm section by consummate players Steve Watts on bass an Jeff Williams on drums. This line-up is booked for a number of gigs out of town between May and July. I’ll definitely be keeping my ears close to the ground to sleuth out a London appearance. This is the first recommended gig from LondonJazz which doesn’t exist yet. (see table left)

A remark in the 1,646-page Penguin Guide, that Iles is a “British composer: yet to deliver a definitive statement,” has me perplexed at how the value or the essence of a jazz musician can be judged exclusively from a couple of albums. To me, a thirteen year musical partnership with Tina May counts as a definitive statement. As does the authority with which she writes, solos, and just is as a musician and a person. And I hear an absolutely definitive statement about life rather than jewel-cased coated plastic in the following: Iles tells me she is able to make time for her daughter just about every day.

I keep in mind one of the first posts I wrote for LondonJazz , which contained Maria Schneider’s take on the pressures faced by women jazz musicians.

“It’s not an easy life […]To be a jazz musician requires a huge amount of alone time. Practising, being in your own head. Working on your own thing. I don’t think that young girls are generally oriented to that kind of thinking. It’s very deep-seated[…]With women, maybe it’s like this: If you’re mediocre, you might have a tough time. If you’re really good, nobody can deny it.”

If there is one woman instrumentalist in British jazz for whom the truth that she is so good that nobody can deny it is self-evident, then that person is Iles.

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