The Nikki Iles Jazz Orchestra
(The Vortex, 16 November, 2018. EFG London Jazz Festival. Review by Mike Collins)
‘Thanks to The Vortex for giving me my first gig’ declared Nikki Iles, somewhat incongruously for such an established figure on the UK jazz scene, as the clamorous reception from a packed Vortex subsided at the end of the evening. If not Nikki’s first gig then, it did perhaps signal a new chapter with the first full gig of a big ensemble (very big with 20 people on the stage) under Nikki’s name with her behind the conductor’s desk rather than at the piano.
Gathering together commissions from over the years, orchestrations of her own small band tunes, new writing and a couple of borrowed charts, ‘fleshed out’ for the remarkable band she’d assembled, this was an exhilarating debut. The depth and range of the writing and arranging suggest it was more of the culmination of a journey.
Wild Oak a tribute to Geri Allen, set the scene. An affecting melody line, chiming piano chords, Alcyona Mick doing the honours, suddenly swept aloft by a swell of rich harmony imbued with an edge by a growl of dissonance; a quietly urging groove, suspenseful episodes balanced on bubbling counterpoint from the Conor Chaplin’s bass and the beautifully modulated solos presaged the return of soaring melodic lines. Grey is the Morning for the late Steve Gray, had a kicking, sparky pulse, with more drama throbbing pedals notes to goad soloists on. Vince Mendoza’s pulsating and funky Hero with a 1000 faces got an airing, stabbing horns ramping up the energy for first Mike Outram’s guitar, stuttering phrases gradually coalescing into swirling lines, and then a fierce tenor solo from Julian Siegel borne along by a surging wave of backings.
The Mendoza piece sounded perfectly in place amongst the Iles originals and arrangements. A marker of the quality of the rest of the set and the richness of the vocabulary. Highlands an Iles near standard, skirled and swirled James Copus uncorking a blistering flugel solo. Red Ellen swaggered and rocked, with a rambunctious solo from Nick Smart rousing cheers all-round. The newest piece, Haunted Glory was an elegy, that stilled the room, Mick’s acerbic rhapsodic piano solo giving way to emotional flights from Henry Lowther’s trumpet that hung in the air. An electric moment. A blistering take on a Steely Dan tune closed the set and the uproar disturbed any dust remaining after the Vortex’s recent makeover.
This didn’t sound like a debut, more like as seasoned hand and a distinctive creative voice, pieces brought to vivid life by a top-drawer band. More please!