Nikki Iles with the NDR Big Band
(Cadogan Hall, 19 November 2023. EFG LJF. Review by Mike Collins)
It’s five years since Nikki Iles premiered her Jazz Orchestra at the Vortex in Dalston in the 2018 EFG London Jazz Festival. On that occasion she thanked the venue for her ‘first gig’, albeit she already had a formidable reputation as a performer and writer. The Vortex is just a few miles from Sloane Square and Cadogan Hall, but the short distance belies the extent to which Iles’ artistry as a composer has been recognised and her reputation grown since that ‘first gig’. On the last night of the festival’s 2023 edition she brought the NDR Big Band to Cadogan Hall to perform repertoire written during her year as their composer-in-residence.
The gig was billed as the launch of the Face to Face album, eight Iles pieces performed by the Big Band and newly released on Edition Records. The evening was capped off by two of the pieces from the album, Misfit and Big Sky, but before that we were treated to a feast of new music, written for the band over the last year.
The band took to the stage, Iles turned, cued four beats in and we were pinned to seats by the hurtling momentum of Blink. The thrilling start was a reminder that as well as being crammed with dazzling improvising musicians, Percy Pursglove trumpet and Fiete Felsch’s alto scorched the paint-work on that first piece, the band as whole is a refined, and mature instrument. The joy of the evening though, was that the music touched the heart, moved, and thrilled in turns. The delighted audience will surely be remembering how they felt, as much as admiring the mastery of the compositional and arranging hand and the verve and virtuosity of the individuals and group.
Two mini-suites in the middle of each set distilled the magic. One4One, a salute to the Wheelers, Doreen and maestro Kenny, could have been a missing movement from the late trumpeter’s own suite for another large ensemble. Claus Stötter’s trumpet rose over an intensifying rubato opening episode, drenched with bitter sweet harmony. It subsided and gave way to a latin groove just as the emotion threatened to overwhelm. A swirling passionate tenor solo from Frank Delle sustained the energy. In the second set, Quicksilver started as ethereal and misty then a dancing motif promised another season, before we were ambushed by a glorious melody; there was one round every corner. It launched scintillating, exuberant solos from Phil Robson on guitar and Ingolf Burkhardt on trumpet.
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.The partnership between Nikki Iles and the NDR Big Band has been an extravagantly fruitful one. The residency itself is a long overdue accolade, given additional weight coming as it does from one of Europe’s creative hubs. The fabulous music that has resulted, and surely there will be chances to hear it again, is no surprise and represents a significant landmark for one of our most unfailingly creative composers.