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Nikki Iles Jazz Orchestra at Pizza Express Soho (EFG LJF 2021)

Nikki Iles Jazz Orchestra
(Pizza Express Soho. 21 November 2021. EFG LJF. Review by Mike Collins)

The Nikki Iles Jazz Orchestra at the Vortex. Photo courtesy of Nikki Iles

The Nikki Iles Jazz Orchestra in full flight is a thing to behold. Often, as a solo ends, the full richness of the 18-piece ensemble is unleashed and vaulting melodic lines are passed around the sections, buoyed by rich, bitter-sweet harmonies that envelop the listener. It’s a sound whose debt to the great Kenny Wheeler was named by Iles whilst introducing the music during the lunch time gig at Pizza Express. This set bristling with invention and energy left no doubt however, that the reference was an acknowledgement of one of the creative wellsprings that feed this music, not a constraint or limitation.  

The 2018 London Jazz Festival saw the debut of the Nikki Iles Jazz Orchestra (LJN review HERE), and in the year that followed, a tour for 2020 was booked and planned called the ‘Face to Face’ tour. A fragment of the tour was salvaged for this autumn, this Pizza Express gig the last of the series and the first in London. The prescience of the title was lost on no-one, although with the full Orchestra squeezed on to the stage, it was more cheek-to cheek than face-to-face.  

This long sold out gig was packed with emotion and excitement, perhaps heightened by the journey and sense of occasion. The writing and arranging is many layered with momentum, tensions and flowering resolutions piling up. Wild Oak, Gray As The Morning and Hush laid it all out in the first set. Atmospheric segments with alluring melodic fragments, given a context by those rich harmonies, were succeeded by irresistible rhythmic figures; a bustling back beat driven groove on Gray As The Morning, a more flowing feel on Hush, saxes punctuating darting, densely harmonised lines from the trumpets.

Spaces cleared for soloists unfailingly captured the emotion and mood before the full ensemble returned. Particularly catching the ear were Tori Freestone’s supple lines and keening tone, weaving through the harmony of Hush; and Iles herself on the balladic Face to Face sculpting lines that seemed to arc across the form, decorated and filled by rhythmically angular phrases. There was plenty of fire as well with John Parricelli building some crunching solos, and Julian Siegel cutting loose on a storming arrangement of Steely Dan’s Do It Again that closed the gig.

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This was an exhilarating return to the festival for this band. If 2018’s gig was the launch, then this was full steam ahead for a sound and repertoire that weaves together so many musical threads. There’s plenty more to come, with new pieces in this set and the promise of more gigs next year. Book early if this gig was anything to go by.

Full Line Up:

Saxophones: Andy Schofield – Alto, Soprano, Flute; Howard McGIll – Alto, Flute; Julian Siegel – Tenor, Bass Clarinet; Tori Freestone – Tenor, Flute; Karen Sharp – Baritone, Tenor, Clarinet; Gareth Lockrane – Flutes

Trumpets: Tom Walsh, Robbie Robson, James Copus, Nick Smart

Trombones: Gordon Campbell, Richard Henry, Ollie Martin, Harry Maund

With: Nikki Iles – Piano, John Parricelli – Guitar, Steve Watts – Bass, Ian Thomas – Drums

Mike Collins is a pianist and writer based in Bath, who runs the jazzyblogman site. Twitter: @jazzyblogman

LINK: Nikki Iles’ website

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