Nikki Iles: Meditation and Collaboration
"Meditations," as a tune and as a title, could be said to sum up the feel of the album: a beautifully meditative atmosphere created by the interplay of these extremely talented musicians. This was not the initial intention: Iles planned some more up-tempo tunes, but none of them made it on to the album. "We recorded at Tony Bennett's son's studio, which is near Rufus' house. We recorded some faster, louder, tunes but I decided not to use them, as the sound on those numbers wasn't quite what I wanted. Peter Beckmann, who mastered the album with me here in the U.K., said it sounded better with this more constant mood. And I was playing music that's very personal to me, so I wanted to use those tunes I felt really close to."
On Hush, "Nardis" is followed by Ralph Towner's "The Glide." The two seem eminently suited to each other as played by the trioa contrasting coupling. "I always think of 'The Glide' as a playful piece. I often play it with Norma [Winstone], and she's added some funny, playful, rhymes. 'Nardis' is a bit dark, so I wanted to follow it with a lighter number." The coupling of Michel Legrand's "You Must Believe In Spring" and Rodgers and Hart's "Spring Is Here" is also inspired. A contrast to both "Nardis" and "The Glide," these two tunes have a romantic, ethereal feel. There is a hint of something darker in Iles' approach to "You Must Believe In Spring." Isles explains, "I wanted to make the introduction a bit bleak, stripped down. I was trying not to be too romantic in the beginning. Obviously, the lovely harmonies eventually come to the fore, but it's a bit starker at the start."
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."