Nikki Iles: Meditation and Collaboration

Bruce Lindsay By

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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.'"

HushThe 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 people—including 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."

For Iles, taking on the role of band leader involves other, more pragmatic, decisions as well. "For me, being a constant band leader would be a struggle—the effort of organizing, the financial constraints. Even taking a six-piece like Printmakers on the road isn't something I could do all the time. I do subsidize a lot of gigs to pay people properly, which is something a lot of us do. I've never really been a gigster, out every night playing. But I do like playing with musicians I admire. It's about friendships, too. I love to play gigs with people I don't know, musicians who are new to me, but there's that whole thing of investing in friendships and letting music grow out of that. Mark Lockheart is another example. I started playing with him in Steve Berry's Foolish Hearts about 20 years ago. I've always loved his playing, but nothing else happened for a few years until Printmakers. He was absolutely right for it. Mike [Walker], Printmakers guitarist, is someone else I've had an ongoing musical relationship with."

One of Iles' earliest recordings was with Anthony Braxton; it was recorded in 1994 but not released until 1997 (Composition No. 175 & Composition No. 126: Trillium-Dialogues M, Leo Records). At the mention of his name, she laughs loudly and, without a pause, exclaims, "That was life-changing." So what was such a life- changing experience like? "I was working with the Creative Jazz Orchestra in the north of England—the orchestra was based in Manchester, and I was in Leeds. It was a really wonderful time for those of us 'up north.' Nick Purnell, the CJO's director, arranged some fantastic projects for about five years: people like Vince Mendoza and Kenny Wheeler also got involved. Braxton came to tour with us. The band included four opera singers, classical percussionists playing hairdryers and drills, string players and a full-on big band.

Composition No. 175 & Composition No. 126: Trillium-Dialogues M "Braxton was playing music 'in the cracks.' He would talk to us about having faith in your own music; that's what really hit me. He talked about classical musicians not liking his stuff because it wasn't classical, and jazzers not thinking that it was jazz, but he just carried on. He was so committed to the music. It's the hardest music I've ever played: weird time signatures varying almost from bar to bar, followed by a loop when you would be expected to improvise. It was an astonishing sound, and we all committed to it. The album doesn't sound so wild now as it did at the time, but there are some amazing textures on it. He's a truly unique person, and he did pass something very valuable on to a lot of us: follow your heart. A bit clichéd, but it does hold true. Even at 6:00 in the morning, on the coach from Manchester to Sadler's Wells Opera House in London, he was listening to his own recordings on headphones—wild, mad, saxophone sounds blaring out across the coach."

As well as being in demand as a performer and composer, Iles is a highly regarded educator. At present, her main post is at the Royal Academy of Music. She also teaches at the Guildhall School of Music and is involved in the National Youth Jazz Collective which works with up-and-coming, teenage musicians. The talented young players in the NYJC must make her feel positive about the future of music in the UK? "Yes, absolutely. The talent at that age is astonishing. I think about my generation—we were much older when we got to that stage. There's so much more available now, so much more support, courses, advice." The NYJC players also seem very comfortable mixing genres, while their teachers are happy to encourage such an approach. "Yes. It's a great team—excellent teachers who are very open to ideas."
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