Pianist, bandleader, composer and educator Nikki Iles is a central figure in British jazz. At LJN we are pleased start off this year’s series of International Women’s Day features, now in their 12th year, with this interview feature by John Fordham. The publication also coincides with this Sunday’s final date of the Nikki Iles Jazz Orchestra’s tour at Ronnie Scott’s. (Booking link below, a few tickets still available).
Nikki Iles once made a piano-trio album with the disarmingly candid title of Everything I Love. The year was 2002, she was in her 30s, by then an occasional bandleader and sought-after sideperson, admired by her peers and a discerning contingent of the UK jazz audience as a composer, teacher – and, most distinctively of all, a quietly creative piano improviser with an almost vocally eloquent sound spawned from, among many, the inspirations of Bill Evans, John Taylor and Paul Bley.
But if the title Everything I Love accurately reflected what that album’s songs meant to her, it also implied something deeper – about this subtle artist’s spontaneous delight in playing, listening, learning, and relishing the company of people who love musicmaking and the cameraderie it nurtures as much as she does. Iles felt that way about being a musician back then, and it’s plain that 20 years later the impulse hasn’t changed. But the list of things to love has grown a lot longer.
In recent times, Iles’ composing has caught the ear of prestigious European ensembles from Hamburg’s famous NDR Big Band and the Frankfurt Radio Big Band (video below), to Helsinki’s UMO Orchestra. Her work with the UK’s National Youth Jazz Orchestra has been played at the Royal Albert Hall on the Proms, her partnerships with such imaginative vocalists as the great Norma Winstone and with Tina May have repeatedly confirmed her selflessly sublime accompanying skills, her last small-band album featured international bass virtuoso and former Miles Davis sideman Dave Holland alongside the classy saxophonist Stan Sulzmann, and she’s a jazz-piano Professor at the Royal Academy of Music – a role she clearly relishes for what the students bring to her life as well as what she imparts to theirs. Last December, Iles also won an Ivor Novello Award for what the judges called her ‘beautifully crafted’ lockdown composition ‘The Caged Bird’, and received – much to her surprise – a British Empire Medal ‘for services to music’ in the 2022 New Year Honours List. But over the past three years, despite the disruptions of the pandemic, Nikki Iles has been developing the biggest ensemble venture of her prolific working life – the 19-piece orchestra that winds up its short winter UK tour this Sunday (6 March) at Ronnie Scott’s Club.
‘I sometimes think, how did I get into playing jazz?’, Nikki Iles ponders, on the opening theme of how she got to this exalted place, despite egotism seeming to be a missing component in her psyche. She greets the query with a perplexity that ends in a hoot of mirth, like many of her speculations engagingly do. ‘I was a painfully shy teenager – but, curiously, I decided to throw myself into one of the most risky, yet exciting ways of making music, as an improviser! My dad was away a lot with work and my mum’s health wasn’t good, so consequently, I was never pressurised by them to follow a “sensible career path”. With hindsight that was a good thing, particularly as a young female jazz musician.
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‘So I kind of fell into it very naturally, meeting like-minded people and finding my way. I won a Junior Exhibitioner’s Scholarship on clarinet to study at the Royal Academy of Music when I was 11, and later I moved to the piano in the youth jazz group in Bedfordshire and it was here – and through a brief bit of advice from an older trumpet player – that I fully realised that making spontaneous music was what I wanted to pursue. So I headed off to Leeds College, playing alto, which was the only jazz degree course back then. I’ve always loved bringing people together, whether in my own groups or in teaching. Sometimes the freedom and trust you have with friends you’ve played with for years is the best. I’ve loved doing that ever since, and a lot of my work has depended on it.’
The formidable Iles orchestra winding up her tour at Ronnie Scott’s certainly bears that long-held conviction out. Lead alto saxophonist Andy Schofield is an old associate from her 1980s years on the northern jazz circuit after she graduated from Leeds in 1984; he is also a former Iles sidekick from Manchester’s legendary Creative Jazz Orchestra of the early ’90s, an innovative and ingenious workshop band, skilful and open-minded enough to collaborate fruitfully with star composers including Mike Gibbs, Vince Mendoza, Kenny Wheeler, and even the jazz/contemporary-classical explorer Anthony Braxton. Fellow reeds-players Julian Siegel, Tori Freestone, Karen Sharp and bassist Steve Watts likewise go back a long way with Iles, while trumpeter Nick Smart is her old friend and colleague and the jazz department’s director at the Royal Academy of Music.
But if the expertise and mutual trust shared by these performers are familiar materials that Nikki Iles loves to assemble, prime and ignite, the music she brings to this programme also looks forward and back in her life. Old originals like ‘Hush’ (from a 2012 album of the same name with New York A-listers Rufus Reid on bass and Jeff Williams on drums) mix with newer material like the exquisite tone-poem ‘Wild Oak’, or the quirkily hustling and serpentine ‘Gray Is The Morning’, a tribute to the late British composer/arranger Steve Gray. Nikki Iles’ orchestral palette draws on the music of Kenny Wheeler, Mike Gibbs, Vince Mendoza, Carla Bley, and the Gil Evans-mentored Maria Schneider, but if those influences can be fitfully glimpsed, Iles’ music is always her own. It’s a high-end talent that a high-end music school might be assumed to have been the facilitator for – yet she’s completely self-taught in large-scale composition and arrangement, and seems to have picked up these arcane skills by osmosis. How did it happen?
‘I’d always wanted to write for larger groups, I think,’ Iles considers. ‘I loved classical music as a child, and as I’ve got older I’ve realised how I much I like the narrative of bigger forms. Strangely enough, I got into composing by simply using my instincts as an improviser – starting with a blank page with no bar lines, sketching and developing ideas, designing forms, disguising themes until they’re ready to emerge. Always trying to take the music somewhere else. This always felt like a very organic process for me. When I was at college, I took note of Carla Bley and Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis band – and then later, it was life-changing for me to work with composers as different as Mike Gibbs, Kenny, Vince Mendoza, and with improvisers like Mike Walker on guitar.’
But those heady Creative Jazz Orchestra days were a long time back, so Iles’ big-form dreams stayed mostly on hold until an initiative by the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s culture-crossing Renga ensemble in 2010 introduced her to the former Dexter Gordon double bassist Rufus Reid – who, like Iles, was deepening his interests in composition for improvisers as he hit mid-life. Iles recorded the Hush album in New Jersey with him and American drummer Jeff Williams – ‘and when I came back from New York, I’d been so inspired talking with Rufus about writing, I thought “that’s it, I’m going to have a go”.
But it wasn’t until Kim Macari, programmer at London’s Vortex jazz club, told Iles there was an available date in November 2018 on the EFG London Jazz Festival that she could consider as an opportunity to debut a big band, that the penny finally dropped. Iles assembled an orchestra of old mates and rising young hotshots, and a repertoire of new work and small-band charts that Mike Collins, LJN’s reporter on the night, described as an event that ‘didn’t sound like a debut, more like a seasoned hand and a distinctive creative voice…pieces brought to vivid life by a top-drawer band.’ The success of the gig triggered plans for a big 2020 UK tour, due to travel under the name Face to Face. But the pandemic broke, and the rest is history.
‘I was heartbroken,’ Nikki Iles says, and the pain of that recent memory is evident in her voice. ‘Eleven dates cancelled, after so much planning. I couldn’t go near the piano for quite a while – it was too painful. Then in May 2020 I received a Covid relief commission from the International Society of Jazz Composers and Arrangers in America, which gently drew me back in to the music, and was an absolute lifesaver. I called the piece ‘The Caged Bird’, which is of course how I and many of us were feeling throughout this period. I went to it every day and it was like therapy – the piece never returns to any of its early themes and keeps moving forward to freedom’. It’s a memory that sparks the Iles chuckle, but though the next event in her life does not, there was an unexpected upside even to that.
‘I developed a detached retina during this time,’ she reveals. ‘I had to have a major op, that kept me still for a month. Strangely enough, with one eye full of a gas bubble and unable to see, I bought some scores, had an inspiring lesson with Vince Mendoza online, found a magnifying glass, and the ideas began flowing against all the odds. Then came an opportunity via a friend, the trumpeter Percy Pursglove, who’s a member of the NDR Big Band. He told many big band writers in the UK that the NDR were looking for new writers and had put out a call for scores. There were several rounds of selection – including band votes – and I was fortunate to get a call and spent a great week in December directing the band alongside drummer Ian Thomas and Mike Walker, with the prospect of more work in the pipeline. I do still have my moments of concern about not having had any official composition lessons! But at this stage, I’m just really enjoying exploring the music I want to write.’
Back at the start of this story, when Nikki Iles was in that game-changing stage of her practical musical education with the Creative Jazz Orchestra, I recall hearing her perform with a Creative Jazz octet subgroup at London’s South Bank in 1995. Iles unveiled the beginnings of a repertoire for her Printmakers project that night, the blueprint for a band that would go on to include Norma Winstone, Mike Walker, and Polar Bear/Loose Tubes saxophonist Mark Lockheart that she still periodically revisits. Part of that South Bank night’s programme was dedicated to women in jazz – Winstone, Carla Bley, Mary Lou Williams, Billie Holiday, Geri Allen. Iles remembers that 27-years-past performance well, and doesn’t need reminding that this year’s International Women’s Day happens two days after her orchestra’s performance at Ronnie’s. As both a player and a teacher, she can testify to the changes in jazz that have passed under the bridge since then.
‘There’s still a way to go,’ Iles cautions, ‘but women are much more visible on the scene as players, composers, teachers in higher education, and in the media. I only played with one woman in my early career, the great drummer Caroline Boaden, who teaches at Leeds. Now I’m involved as a trustee at NYJO (National Youth Jazz Orchestra) and work for Issie Barratt in the National Youth Jazz Collective, I’ve seen these organisations having to evolve, create more breadth of diversity, and provide role models in those all-important early stages – which is great. My daughter, Immy Churchill, has been given so many opportunities and encouraged at the Royal Academy to do her thing, but she just says “well I’ve seen you do it !” and she’s burning to play. Many bandleaders book their mates – we all do it. But I think with more awareness, musicians are thinking more openly about personnel, and giving more women the opportunity to contribute and grow. “Opportunity” being the key word.’
With a debut recording for the orchestra in the pipeline, a prospective box set from Jelly Mould Records of her small-band work with Stan Sulzmann, and a May tour of Denmark with Norma Winstone in celebration of Kenny Wheeler’s music, Nikki Iles has plenty to look forward to as her musical life seems to be shifting up a gear after the uncertainties of the past couple of years. And if this new phase perhaps presents its own challenges, they seem to feel now like creative opportunities rather than daunting choices.
‘It’s been a dilemma for me as to whether to play, or direct the big band,’ Iles says. ‘A well-oiled band doesn’t need a conductor, only maybe some cueing. But I do feel that it’s important for me to direct the band from time to time. There are so few female big band writers here, and I hope it’ll encourage more to to tell their story. Maria Schneider mentioned a conversation she’d had with her mentor Bob Brookmeyer – when she was feeling like she wanted to write in a more “macho” way to prove herself. But Bob told her the world needed her story. And that has really resonated with me.’
Nikki Iles’ Orchestra plays Ronnie Scott’s Club on Sunday 6 March. BOOKING LINK