REVIEW: Nikki Iles / Royal Academy of Music Big Band at the QEH (2014 EFG London Jazz Festival)

Nikki Iles / Royal Academy of Music Big Band
{Queen Elizabeth Hall, 22nd November 2014. EFG London Jazz Festival. Review and photo by Mike Collins)

A glance round the stage from conductor Nick Smart, a beat or two of the hand and few rich chords rang out, spread across the big band sections with a deft arranger’s hand, evoking a soaring wistful beauty. Lump in throat. It was a catch the breath moment and the fragile melody over a quietly propulsive groove was almost a relief. The title Hush of the opening tune of this set of Nikki Iles’ music described the atmosphere as well as the tune.

The tunes were familiar to anyone who has listened to the bands Nikki has played and recorded with over the last twenty years from the Veils Quintet, her trio (most recently recording Hush) and the award winning Printmakers. Arranging the pieces for big band has given them an added depth and richness with a huge emotional punch.

The varied textures and grooves inspired some powerful solos. On that opener, a warm toned melodic burst from Tom Barford on tenor had us sitting up. On Under the Canopy, Sam Glaser’s alto cried and swooped evoking other worldly images. Highlands opened with a dancing, swirling duet between piano and Tom Ridout on virtuosic recorder. Another standout moment, before the driving pulse gave way to a full on, rock out guitar solo from Rob Luft. There was space for voice too, both blending with the arrangements and Miriam Ast delivering Norma Winstone’s lyric on the Brazilian-tinged Tideways with confidence and clarity. Iles may have been composer/arranger, but her playing was another highlight with characteristically melodic lines developing whenever she took a solo, deceptively light at times with glancing grace notes sliding off the beat but always digging into the groove.

What holds these pieces together is the strength of the melodies and beautifully crafted structure. It’s a great reminder that in Nikki Iles the UK scene has a distinctive writer and, on this showing, arranger. Stan Sulzmann also contributed a few arrangements and both seem to draw on the colours and cadences opened up by Kenny Wheeler deploying them with their own characteristic twists. Its joyful music, sometimes tinged with a bittersweet melancholy.

A few education-related references and announcements in mid gig reminded us that this was a band of students with just a few days rehearsal to master these arrangements. Well we knew that I guess, but all we were hearing was beautiful music played with passion and commitment.

The Royal Academy Big Band

Lindsay Breydon – flute
Sam Glaser – alto
Jim Gold – alto
Tom Ridout – tenor (and recorder)
Tom Barford – tenor
Greg Barker – baritone/ bass clarinet

Louis Dowdeswell – trumpet
James Copus – trumpet
Alistair Martin – trumpet
Tom Gardner – trumpet

Owen Dawson – trombone
Oliver Martin – trombone
Elliot Pooley – trombone
Alex Kelly – bass trombone
Alexei Watkins – french horn

Miriam Ast – vocals
Rob Luft – guitar
Ralph Wyld – vibes
Flo Moore – Double bass
Marc Michel – drums

Nick Smart – Conductor

Categories: miscellaneous

1 reply »

  1. I thought that this was one of the stand-out performances of the jazz festival this year. The RAM big band have some highly talented players and I'll look forward to following their careers after they graduate. I was much impressed by Miriam Ast too. It was a great shame that the Queen Elizabeth Hall was half empty. They deserved a much bigger audience.

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