The vibrancy of the British jazz scene is something that for the most part continues to elude listeners on the North American side of the Atlantic. While some artists, including trumpeter Kenny Wheeler and pianist John Taylor, are receiving their proper dueTaylor, though, only in recent timesothers, including saxophonists Martin Speake , Stan Sulzmann and Iain Ballamy, still await the broader recognition they so duly deserve. Add to that list pianist Nikki Iles, who, along with some fine collaborations with Speake amongst others, has been gradually building a discography of her own that deserves more than a casual glance. Veils , her most recent album, has been out for about a year now; it's a fine group record that highlights, aside from her capable piano playing, a broader compositional style.
From the folksy feel of "High Lands," which features guitarist Mike Outram sounding like a young Pat Metheny, to the darker "Beauteous Beast," which blends a kind of acoustic funk with a lightly-swinging B section, Iles' writing is rife with melodies that remain in the consciousness long after the disc has finished spinning. Drummer Anthony Michelli, a Canadian player who spends significant time in England each year and seems to be garnering more attention there than at home, works hand-in-glove with bassist Mick Hutton, another British treasure who has yet to receive the attention he deserves. With a rich sound and imaginative ability to hold down the groove, while at the same time asserting his own lyrical dominance, Hutton is the modern English equivalent of ex-pat Dave Holland.
Sharing the front line is Sulzmann, whose recent release The Jigsaw will hopefully bring him to the attention of North American audiences, as melodically-centred as always. Somewhat less melancholic than on The Jigsaw and a little less abstract, Sulzmann brings Iles' diverse compositions to life, most notably the richly-layered "Fly's Dilemma," where Hutton's bass and Iles' left hand create a tense counterpoint to Sulzmann and Outram's oblique theme. While structural concerns dominate the album, Sulzmann's solo on this track is freely-conceived, demonstrating a looser improvisational flair.
Iles the pianist has some precedence in the playing of John Taylor, although with a more linear approach and less harmonic density. And regardless of the contextwhether it is a tender ballad like "Fly's Dilemma" or the relaxed John Abercrombie-esque title trackmelody comes first and foremost. While a group with guitar and piano runs the risk of becoming too dense, Iles and Outram know how to stay out of each other's way, giving the music plenty of room the breathe.
Veils may be Iles' most fully-realized recording to date and, as such, is the perfect place to start for listeners interested in hearing more from a scene which is largely overlooked in North America. Iles demonstrates a more ego-less ensemble-oriented approach that may not put her in league with the Mehldaus and the Jarretts, but with a stronger compositional flair, she is worthy of equal attention.
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Personnel: Nikki Iles (piano), Stan Sulzmann (tenor and soprano saxophones), Mike Outram (guitar), Mick Hutton (double-bass), Anthony Michelli (drums)