Face to Face - Album and Tour with NDR Big Band
When a musical jeweller with an imagination of remarkable aural refinement meets a jazz orchestra which combines playing of super-fine precision and warmth with a total commitment to the music’s singular ebb and flow, remarkable things can happen...
NIKKI ILES : FACE TO FACE ALBUM REVIEW - STANDOUT ORCHESTRAL JAZZ ****
The pianist -composer work with the NDR Bigband on tracks which let the ensemble shine .
The mood-soaked originals, delicate arranger’s touch and focused playing of pianist-composer Nikki Iles’ 30-plus album appearances cement her as a British jazz standout. Those releases centred on small-group jazz but, forsaking the piano chair, Face to Face finds her expanding that musicality to compose, arrange and conduct the Hamburg-based NDR Bigband.The German jazz orchestra’s long history of international collaborations ranges from the English composer Michael Gibbs to US saxophonist and James Brown sideman Pee Wee Ellis. Its power and thrust are documented on dozens of albums in a recorded history that stretches back nearly 50 years. Iles maintains that muscularity while sensitively exploring the variety of textures that the ensemble can provide. Guest drummer Ian Thomas adds precision, guitarist Mike Walker a sophisticated blues-laced touch. The result is a standout album of orchestral jazz that is packed with detail and lets the ensemble breathe.The album, recorded before Iles started as this year’s NDR composer in residence, begins with the drum breaks and brassy riffs of “Misfits”. The laid-back and funky “Red Ellen” comes next, “Face to Face” is dreamy and “Wild Oak” unfolds through a multiplicity of pastel shades. The band’s solo strength, a feature of every track, is integrated into each composition’s narrative arc. Every soloist on the opener has their own brassy accompaniment, sheens of brass swell moodily behind “Red Ellen”’s soloists and sparse ripples of Florian Weber’s piano decorate the rich-with-detail ballad.
The impressively varied set continues through far-ranging vistas, an angular up-tempo swinger and the slow-burning “Hush”; pensive at the start, mellow Walker guitar brings the composition to a peak.
The album ends with “Awakening” and a funky Latin beat. The brass moves from the panoramic to the austere, and call-and-response patterns have different shades. Trumpet takes a turn, Walker is rough-edged and soulful on guitar and drummer Thomas a lean rhythmic driving force. There is even room for unaccompanied brass to shimmer and weave. Much to enjoy and much to take in.
Author: Alyn Shipton
It is always good when an international jazz collaboration is preserved on a recording that shows clearly what each side brought to the meeting. And that is on show here, not just in the committed and powerful delivery of Nikki Iles’ music by the NDR band, but by the contributions of some of her long-term UK colleagues to the line up. A case in point is ‘Red Ellen’ where the swagger of the brass and reeds is matched by the guitar introduction and stunning solo from Mike Walker, and the prominent role of Ian Thomas’s drums throughout the track.
Like all the best big bands from Henderson and Ellington on down, the ensemble is about allowing individual voices to emerge and shape the music, and the Iles scores create space for this to happen, with both regular band
members and guests. After a calm rhythm section introduction, featuring Heller’s bass and Weber’s piano, ‘Wild Oak’ has one of Iles’s typical sinuous melody lines, initially led by the reeds, with Gareth Lockrane’s flute prominent.
Thomas powers the album closer ‘Misfits’ with some exciting drumming, doing what he has always done brilliantly, and shadowing the sections’ phrasing with some fine punctuation. Singling out these tracks is not to say they are the only high points on the album, and all eight pieces offer an extremely rewarding listen, with one of Britain’s most consistent and interesting composers joining forces with an equally absorbing collection of players.
Nikki Iles with the NDR Big Band
(Cadogan Hall, 19 November 2023. EFG LJF. Review by Mike Collins London Jazz News)
Nikki Iles and the NDR Big Band. Photo credit: Tatiana Gorilovsky
It’s five years since Nikki Iles premiered her Jazz Orchestra at the Vortex in Dalston in the 2018 EFG London Jazz Festival. On that occasion she thanked the venue for her ‘first gig’, albeit she already had a formidable reputation as a performer and writer. The Vortex is just a few miles from Sloane Square and Cadogan Hall, but the short distance belies the extent to which Iles’ artistry as a composer has been recognised and her reputation grown since that ‘first gig’. On the last night of the festival’s 2023 edition she brought the NDR Big Band to Cadogan Hall to perform repertoire written during her year as their composer-in-residence. The gig was billed as the launch of the Face to Face album, eight Iles pieces performed by the Big Band and newly released on Edition Records. The evening was capped off by two of the pieces from the album, Misfit and Big Sky, but before that we were treated to a feast of new music, written for the band over the last year.The band took to the stage, Iles turned, cued four beats in and we were pinned to seats by the hurtling momentum of Blink. The thrilling start was a reminder that as well as being crammed with dazzling improvising musicians, Percy Pursglove trumpet and Fiete Felsch’s alto scorched the paint-work on that first piece, the band as whole is a refined, and mature instrument. The joy of the evening though, was that the music touched the heart, moved, and thrilled in turns. The delighted audience will surely be remembering how they felt, as much as admiring the mastery of the compositional and arranging hand and the verve and virtuosity of the individuals and group.Two mini-suites in the middle of each set distilled the magic. One4One, a salute to the Wheelers, Doreen and maestro Kenny, could have been a missing movement from the late trumpeter’s own suite for another large ensemble. Claus Stötter’s trumpet rose over an intensifying rubato opening episode, drenched with bitter sweet harmony. It subsided and gave way to a latin groove just as the emotion threatened to overwhelm. A swirling passionate tenor solo from Frank Delle sustained the energy. In the second set, Quicksilver started as ethereal and misty then a dancing motif promised another season, before we were ambushed by a glorious melody; there was one round every corner. It launched scintillating, exuberant solos from Phil Robson on guitar and Ingolf Burkhardt on trumpet.The partnership between Nikki Iles and the NDR Big Band has been an extravagantly fruitful one. The residency itself is a long overdue accolade, given additional weight coming as it does from one of Europe’s creative hubs. The fabulous music that has resulted, and surely there will be chances to hear it again, is no surprise and represents a significant landmark for one of our most unfailingly creative composers.
- Nikki Iles featuring the NDR Bigband, EFG London Jazz Festival, Cadogan Hall review - boundless artistry in harmony.An unforgettable hymn to the beauty of imperfection by Peter Quinn 5*****. Wednesday, 22 November 2023
From discombobulated dreamland to surprising codas: Nikki Iles Photo courtesy of Dave Stapleton
When a musical jeweller with an imagination of remarkable aural refinement meets a jazz orchestra which combines playing of super-fine precision and warmth with a total commitment to the music’s singular ebb and flow, remarkable things can happen.
In the latest edition of Jazzwise magazine marking the 100th anniversary of the formation of the Duke Ellington Jazz Orchestra, composer, arranger, conductor, bandleader, pianist and educator, Nikki Iles, talks about being fascinated by Duke’s compositional process “and the symbiotic nature of his relationship with his band.”
On the closing night of this year’s EFG London Jazz Festival, a packed Cadogan Hall witnessed a similarly harmonious collaboration, with Iles crafting a programme – entitled ‘A Love of Imperfect Things’ – which allowed her to explore other areas of her boundless artistry in the company of the great Hamburg-based jazz orchestra, the NDR Bigband. With Iles taking up the post of artist in residence with the NDR in Hamburg throughout 2023, the affinity between composer and orchestra was palpable. This was music-making with no boundaries, with a love of the ludic, of risk-taking, and of being in the moment.
The blazing energy and high-wire soloing (from altoist Fiete Felsch and trumpeter Percy Pursglove) in opener "Blink" set the scene. Iles' incredible ear for textural detail, coupled with her expert handling of form, combined to stunning effect in "One4One", a tribute to Doreen Wheeler (wife of legendary composer, flugel and trumpet player, Kenny Wheeler) which simultaneously paid tribute to some of Iles’ own influences, from the sophistication of Thad Jones-Mel Lewis to the dancing exuberance of Geri Allen.
If the harmonically restless "Words Fail" highlighted Iles’ supreme melodicism (great soloing here from pianist Lukas Klapp and tenorist Julian Siegel), the wonderful "Moontide" – inspired by a lyric from Iles’ great friend and long-standing collaborator, Norma Winstone, who was in the audience – progressed from discombobulated dreamland to powerful brass chorales, with an ending that rose upward into the empyrean, one of several surprising codas which delighted the ear. Driven onwards by drummer Ian Thomas’ crisp backbeat, "Upwards" coursed with energy and offered a superb example of Iles’ contrapuntal craft.
The second set opened with "Tread Softly", inspired by one of W. B. Yeats’ best loved poems, the brief, two-stanza “He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”, in an arrangement which featured the bottom end of the band – trombones, bass and bari sax (the superb Luigi Grasso). An unequivocal triumph, with ecstatically coloured tutti sections, the piece seemed to gain emotional power and dramatic heft as it slowly unfurled.
For sheer beauty of sound alone, "Winter/Quick Silver" was a delight, with coruscating solos from guitarist Phil Robson and trumpeter Ingolf Burkhardt, plus telling colouristic detail supplied by percussionist Marcio Doctor. The band seemed to revel in the expressive glow of Iles’ sumptuous ballad, "The View from Within", while the opening track of the newly released Iles/NDR Bigband album Face to Face, "Misfits", returned to the evening’s central theme of celebrating the imperfect and called to mind Leonard Cohen’s memorable couplet (from “Anthem”) – “There is a crack, a crack in everything / That's how the light gets in”.
While it was disappointing to miss the encore (and second album cut), "Big Sky”, having to hotfoot it to the RFH for the Symphonic Music of Wayne Shorter, the evening had long since confirmed itself as one of the great meetings of creative minds.
In England, Nikki Iles is an iconic figure in British jazz, and she is set to release her first big band album titled “Face to Face” as part of a groundbreaking collaboration with the prestigious German NDR Bigband. It seems that composers are giving their best in jazz right now.
It’s common to find artists from the German label ACT working with the NDR Bigband, so we can expect this album to be of high quality, which it indeed is. It features radiant, explosive compositions that are perfectly structured and arrangements that match. This album captures decades of Iles’ evolved craftsmanship, blending her unique compositions, orchestrations, and freshly commissioned pieces into a dazzling sonic landscape. From the entrancing “Misfits” to the evocative journey of “Wild Oak,” each track is a testament to Nikki’s profound artistry and her inspiration from her days with the Creative Jazz Orchestra. Saxophonist Tim Garland has written the album’s liner notes, beautifully capturing the essence of Nikki’s work, stating, “Nikki allows all musical elements to resonate from the heart when she writes.” With Ian Thomas on drums and the electrifying guitarist Mike Walker, this recording promises moments of pure musical exhilaration. And that’s indeed what one feels when listening to this album: a cinematic ambiance that takes us from scene to scene, sometimes mystical, sometimes amusing. Nikki Iles brings a vision, an illuminating artistry, and a delicacy at the piano that is truly admirable. For once, we have the full structure of the NDR Bigband, allowing us to pay them the tribute they deserve:
NDR Bigband 06. – 10.12.2021
Fiete Felsch – Alto
Anna-Lena Schnabel – Alto
Julius Gawlik – Tenor (06.-08.12.)
Konstantin Herleinsberger – Tenor (09.+10.12.)
Frank Delle – Tenor
Luigi Grasso – Baritone
Gareth Lockrane – Additional Flute and Alto flute
Dan Gottshall (06.-08.12.)
Erik Konertz (09.+10.12.)
Ingo Lahme – Bass Trombone
Mike Walker – Guitar
Ingmar Heller – Bass
Florian Weber – Piano
Ian Thomas – Drums
Marcio Doctor – Percussion
NDR Bigband 21. – 22.12.2022
Fiete Felsch – Alto
Peter Bolte – Alto
Julius Gawlik – Tenor
Nigel Hitchcock – Tenor
Tini Thomsen – Baritone
Gareth Lockrane – Additional Flute and Alto flute
Ingo Lahme – Bass Trombone
Mike Walker – Guitar (21.12.)
Ingmar Heller – Bass
Florian Weber – Piano
Ian Thomas – Drums (21.12.)
Marcio Doctor – Percussion
Nikki Iles – Accordion
An impressive list for music that is equally impressive. It’s true that Edition Records often delivers breathtaking albums, and this one is no exception. It has received the distinction of being labeled as “essential” by the editorial teams at Bayou Blue Radio and Paris-Move.
PARIS-MOVE, October 6th 2023
There are many things that mark out the European jazz scene from here in the UK – better support for musicians and cheaper or free education for example. Another big marker is the great radio big bands in Germany.
We do have the BBC Big Band but that is now freelance and I believe doesn’t have the level of support and reach that the German bands have. And arguably we cannot match the breadth of styles that are accomplished over there. Fortunately for us, the German bands have a history of working with UK musicians which again fortunately has continued post-Brexit.
This broad approach and links to the UK are shown for example by Django Bates’s Sergeant Pepper collaboration with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band and ex-Loose Tubes colleague Julian Arguelles’s Let it Be Told re-working of South African Jazz with the same band.
And in Hamburg, top UK and Birmingham trumpeter (and bassist)Percy Percglove is a permanent member of the NDR Big Band. The UK/Birmingham connection was recently enhanced when Royal Birmingham Conservatoire graduate Charlie Bates took his piano and composing skills to the next level with a residency with the band.
Which brings us to the latest NDR/UK collaboration – Nikki Iles’s own residency, recording and gigs, including one as I write at the London Jazz Festival. And what a collaboration of lush, swinging sharp and sweet music. Nikki is, of course, a major presence on the UK and wider scene as both pianist and composer having worked with many influential musicians including Anthony Braxton, Mike Gibbs, Ingrid Laubrock, Stan Sulzmann and Trish Clowes.
But this recording is truly next level – a project that allows Nikki to bring her composing work to life in a dramatically effective way. It’s a very personal project, not only a statement asserting her place in the jazz scene but also in parts a reflection on self, life and society.
With a 19-or-so-piece band to work with there is plenty of opportunity not only for full-on playing but also changes of pace and emphasis and Nikki takes full advantage of the opportunity.
‘Misfits’ gets straight on with it with Ian Thomas’s drums prominent at first against the firing horns and they continue to kick the tune along with plenty of swing (solid bass from Ingmar Heller) before Julius Gawlik solos intricately on tenor with the rhythm section at first then against the whole band. Mike Walker takes over with an guitar solo winding it up to splashing horns and a rolling drum solo from Thomas leading to a hot ending.
‘Red Ellen’ moves into a bluesier feel with Mike Walker again prominent. As an indication of Nikki’s concerns being both personal and about wider society, this track is inspired by Ellen Wilkinson a Socialist MP who was part of the 1936 Jarrow March when unemployed people marched to London to pressure for work. The music has a suitably insistent feel with Mike taking an extended rocky, bluesy solo after a typically pungent Pursglove intervention.
The title track, ‘Face to Face’,- Claus Stötter plays the plaintive, slower theme beautifully against a lush background. Florian Weber on piano plays a lyrical solo before Stötter reprises.
Geri Allen, the late US pianist, is the dedicatee for ‘Wild Oak’ a funky and gently swinging affair and Weber again solos impressively and Fiete Felsch does the same on alto.
‘Big Sky’ is a more personal piece with a bluesy opening from Walker. The track is named for those big skies you get in East Anglia where Nikki’s family have roots going back to the 1600s. The band, particularly the horns, dominate in this easy-paced tune until a growling and staccato contribution from Dan Gottshall on trombone.
‘The Caged Bird’ references Nikki’s feelings during the pandemic and this commission got her back into things. A nicely judged singing pace allows Felsch on alto and Luigi Grasso on baritone to play effectively against the band. Try not to tap your feet…
The penultimate track, ‘Hush’, starts with some beautiful voicings at a stately pace. The soloists, both expressive, are Frank Delle on tenor and then Walker this time with a more chorded narrative approach.
Finally, ‘Awakening’ – appropriate for the weather as I write – came out of a dark winter into spring a few years ago when Nikki was commissioned by Trish Clowes for one of her Emulsion series of projects. As it happens, I was there photographing that project in Shrewsbury where Nikki presented it for the first time. Originally it was written for an unusual lineup including classical instruments like bassoon and cello. It’s impressive how she has re-cast the work for a very different band providing a bigger soundscape than the more intimate original. Percy Pursglove was there that weekend but here it’s Stötter leading with a solo and then Walker with a trademark edgy solo.
As the last chords of Awakening fade, you are left with a number of impressions. It’s a set of recordings that is almost a suite and there are echoes of other composer/arrangers like Gil Evans and Mike Gibbs. But there is no mistaking that this is Nikki Iles’s own voice and very impressive it is too. We can only hope that we get to hear more of this music in the future.