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Nikki Iles: Meditation and Collaboration

Nikki Iles: Meditation and Collaboration
Bruce Lindsay By

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Pianist and composer Nikki Iles describes herself as one of the "not- so-young-anymore generation" of British jazz musicians—a fair comment, in chronological terms, from a musician born in the mid-'60s. But more importantly, she's a musician of experience, expertise and talent, viewed with great respect by players across the world. Iles' self-description does seem to be typical of her modest and slightly self- deprecating approach, though: she's not one for ego trips or grandiose claims. In fact, she is more likely to spend time proclaiming the abilities of her fellow musicians than her own.

Since graduating from Leeds College of Music in 1984, Iles has recorded a series of albums under her own name, but much of her extensive discography is as a collaborator or band member. She has been an integral part of bands such as Martin Speake's Secret Quartet. Her collaborations include work with saxophonists Stan Sulzmann and Ingrid Laubrock, vocalist Tina May and, in The Printmakers, singer and composer Norma Winstone and guitarist Mike Walker.

Iles' 2012 album Hush (Basho Records) is a transatlantic collaboration on which she is joined by bassist Rufus Reid and drummer Jeff Williams. Iles got together with Reid and Williams through two separate routes. She explains, "I met Jeff first. He lives half the year in London and half in Brooklyn. He was over in the U.K. with his wife, the author Lionel Shriver. He played a lot with Martin Speake, so we'd done a few gigs together. Martin had recorded Change Of Heart (ECM, 2006) with Bobo Stenson, Mick Hutton and Paul Motian. When Martin had some U.K. gigs that the other three couldn't do, I did them with Jeff on drums and Steve Watts on bass. That was the start of our musical relationship. I love playing with him: he has such a broad emotional range."

Another project brought Iles and Reid together: an offshoot of the London Philharmonic Orchestra, called Renga. "Scott Stroman was Renga's conductor. It was a great idea, a group of musicians playing pieces outside the standard classical repertoire. He brought musicians like [singer] June Tabor and [pianist] Huw Warren into the projects. Rufus was one of the composers who got involved. I also went in, with some of my own music. We were teaching LPO players—I felt a bit out of my depth, but Rufus was great. He's such a wise person, and we got on really well. We were playing contemporary pieces with a fairly large ensemble, rather than small-group jazz, but we got such a nice feeling playing together. It was such a pleasure."

When the collaboration ended, it was Reid (pictured right) who suggested that Iles keep in touch. "I just thought that he was being nice, that it wouldn't ever come to anything—'in my dreams,' you know. But we kept in touch, and then, shortly after one New Year's Eve, I think, I just e-mailed him. Next day, he got back to me and just said, 'Let's do it.' The lovely thing was that Jeff and Rufus had played in so many of the same groups: Stan Getz's band, Joe Lovano's band, Tom Harrell's. But they'd played in them at different times and never actually met each other."

Iles decided to record with Reid and Williams in the United States, and in September, 2010, she traveled to New York for the session. "The night before the recording we rehearsed in Rufus' shed. It was lovely to hear the two of them talk." That rehearsal was the first time the trio had played together. "You could say that it was rather a dangerous approach—for them, at least. I just had the feeling that the personalities would work."

The session, recorded over two days, resulted in a large number of tunes. "I decided it was best to have too many. I wanted to get the best out of all of us, so I didn't have too many highly arranged tunes: I didn't want anyone to feel too boxed in. There are a few tricky tunes, which I sent to the guys ahead of time. The Dave Brubeck tune ["In Your Own Sweet Way"] we just busked, as an opener. Miles Davis' 'Nardis' is a bit arranged, but we just ran through it once in rehearsal. 'Meditations' [Iles' own composition] I wanted as a vehicle for some freer playing. In some ways, it's one of my favorites. We rehearsed the head then left it until the day of recording to see what happened. The album version is the first take."

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."

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