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Review: Tina May/Nikki Iles/Tony Coe

Work going into the production of a Steinway (Photo: Jessica Duchen)

Pizza Express, Thursday March 27th.

The secret, how good Nikki Iles’ piano playing really is, will get out before too long. I don’t know when, but it will. To hear her on a really good hand-crafted piano like the Pizza Express Steinway last night with Tina May and Tony Coe was a revelation.

In classical piano-playing there is a self-selected piano talent pyramid. The money and the reputation and the recording and broadcast opportunities land with those at the top. Which makes the jobs of the budget-holders of high art like Radio 3 or the South Bank or the Barbican relatively simple. They don’t need to discover with their own ears that, say, a quiet, normal, thoughtful Austrian immigrant living in Hampstead called Alfred Brendel, or a self-effacing British diplomat’s wife from Notting Hill called Mitsuko Uchida are the ones you put on in the premium slots or for whom you charge the premium prices. An audience gets transfixed with beauty. But Notting Hill Diplomat’s Wife and Hampstead Quiet Man only ever get to play the best pianos.

All I can say is that if either, or both of these adoptive Londoners had been at the Pizza last night, and heard the colours, the persuasive melodic lines, the depth of feeling, the subtlety of voicing which Nikki Iles from Chorley Wood was, in her unique uncluttered and unforced way, conjuring out of the Pizza’s Steinway, they would have done two things:

-First, I know that they would- like the rest of us- have been smiling in appreciation and recognition of Iles’ musicality. I looked around the audience in her introduction to the Newley/Bricusse song “Who can I turn to?” and I can’t remember being at any musical event where the faces of a higher proportion of the people there had simply, quietly, reverted to a smile. Smiles can be artificial. Inspired by beautiful piano playing, the smiles on the faces of last night’s appreciative Pizza audience were 100% from natural ingredients.

Second – I dreamt this improbable bit later- they would have wanted to tell Graham Sheffield at the Barbican or Roger Wright of Radio 3 or Marshall Marcus at the South Bank what they had just heard, and would have been talking animatedly about what a hell of a musician Iles is.

Unassuming, unforced, quiet pure gold piano talent like Iles’ is appreciated by people who want beauty (that is the only word) in sound, in melodic expression, perfect poise and judgment and execution. Whether they’re pianists or not, this is transcendent stuff.

Tina May and Nikki Iles, go back 13 years and their support and rapport is special. Kenny Wheeler’s “Sweet Dulcinea” from the long-deleted Windmill Tilter album was a highlight for me. The flawless control and unanility of the the quiet fade ending was Grammy-award-quality.

Tony Coe – JazzPar winner in the days when it was Europe’s top jazz prize- is one of the unique voices of world jazz. Coe is quiet, generous. His hand gestures as he handed back responsibility for the melodic line to the ladies… had an eighteenth century Watteau or Claude grace about them. Ellington’s “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me” , a duet with May, Coe on clarinet scarcely rising from the chalumeau (lower) register, was special. Beauty, grace, etiquette, maybe they’re due for a return….

Jazz covers such a range of feeling and expression. This was an evening of quiet, joyful, beauty. A window on what lifelong devotion by three fine musicians can deliver. And one of the three did something special: Nikki Iles made the craftsmanship of the guys in the blue aprons in the picture above totally worthwhile.

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