Nikki Iles: Meditation and Collaboration
Three of Iles' own compositions are included on Hush. Although the trio recorded a few others, Iles wasn't completely happy with the final recordings. "Unfortunately, the sound problems affected some of my tunes. I'd written a tune based on the chord changes of 'Make Someone Happy,' quite an odd, fun piece. That one didn't make it, nor did another one of mine, a straight-eighth tune."
"Hush," the album's title track and another Iles composition, has also developed a life as a big-band arrangement. "It's a tune that starts off quietly then gets going more strongly. It's become a piece for the National Youth Jazz Orchestra, unbelievably. They play it beautifully, with woodwinds and a big chorus." NYJO has yet to record the piece, but the orchestra has played it live on a number of occasions. It's part of NYJO's strategy for commissioning new music, Iles explains. "NYJO has commissioned new pieces from people like Mike Gibbs and Julian Arguelles. I scored 'Hush' specifically for the group."
Although Iles clearly enjoys writing, she's equally at home with other composers' work. "For me to do a whole album of originals isn't a priority. I've always loved playing other people's tunes, especially pieces by people I've worked with. So there's one by Kenny Wheeler ['Everybody's Song But My Own'], one from Julian [Arguelles; 'Hi Steve']. And I want people to recognize one or two tunes too, so I added a couple of standards. Rufus and Jeff have played some of these tunes for years, so it was great to hear them playing them together. On the more contemporary tunes, like Julian's, it was really interesting to see how Rufus approached learning them. He kept saying, 'I'm just working on finding the melodies in these changes.'"
The eventual sound of Hush is very much a collaborative effort. "Absolutely. Rufus and Jeff played so beautifully. Maybe there isn't a loud, upbeat tune, but there's a lot going on. Jeff's playing is full of ideas, and Rufus is so melodic." Williams' playing is consistently fascinating: he's always playing something interesting but never overpowers Iles or Reid. "He never detracts. It's always inside the music. He's got such a great range. I've heard him play like a wild man on some things, but he always plays for the music."
On the cover of Hush, Iles poses next to a quite remarkable upright piano; battered, broken and keys awry, it's a visually striking but rather sad instrument. Iles laughs loudly at the mention of the instrument, before explaining its appearance. "Someone bought a CD at a gig last night, and they were convinced that it was the piano I played on the album. It's actually in a loft in Old Street in London. Drew Gardner, the photographer, found the loft for the album shoot, and the piano was being stored up there, so we used it." An old instrument full of character, but presumably completely unplayable? "Well, it does work a little bit. It's a bit funky."
Iles' recording career began in the early '90s. It's extensive, with over 20 albums, but it's predominantly as a collaborator or a band member rather than as a leader. "I'm a slightly reluctant front- person. I do love getting people together, though, and I enjoy collaborating. I love the Printmakers, working with Norma Winstone, and I really enjoy my work with Martin Speake. His music is very different from my own and I've learnt so much from playing it, met so many peopleincluding Jeff, of course."
When composing for a specific ensemble, Iles will often take the individual musicians' strengths into account. "I do like writing for specific people, for their sound and personalities." The Duke Ellington approach, as it were? "Yes. Kenny Wheeler does that, too. The thing that always stays with me after I hear a musician is always the sound, rather than simply the notes that were played."