An Interview with Nikki Iles

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We are looking forward to performing the premiere of Nikki Iles’ new commission for NYJO at Middlesbrough Town Hall’s Jazz Weekender on 20 October. As part of our EQ project: Remixing the Gender Balance in Jazz.  Over the past year we have commissioned and premiered new works by Laura Jurd, Issie Barratt, Yazz Ahmed and Nikki Iles – all of which have been generously supported by PRS Foundation’s The Open Fund. Nikki’s new commission will be the last one of the year, but we are sure it will have been worth the wait!

We caught up with Nikki to tell us more about her new piece Wild Oak, and what it’s like to write for NYJO.


Tell us about your new composition “Wild Oak”

Wild Oak is dedicated to one of my favourite musicians – the late, great Geri Allen – firstly and foremost as a pianist and composer and secondly as a female jazz musician.


What is the meaning behind the title?

The title of this piece relates specifically to the essence of Geri Allen’s music and also to her as a person. For me, she was a “dignified warrior” – quietly forging her individual path in Jazz. Perhaps more than any other pianist her style – with its harmonic refraction and shifting rhythms – formed a bridge between jazz’s mid-century period and its diverse present. I think she managed this by holding some things constant and rooted in the tradition (the OAK) but she also had the ability to juggle between styles without losing her own sound and freedom (the WILD).


What can we expect to hear when we listen to the piece? Is there anything the audience should look out for in particular?

I always loved her dark, brooding sounds and I begin the piece with a Lament for Geri. I’ve used woodwinds, muted brass, French horn and bass clarinet to produce a veiled ensemble sound and the cluster voicings are a reference to her early albums of the late 80s. The piece then progresses through to a more up-tempo movement. The opening of this section takes its inspiration from the sound world of Ornette Coleman’s  ‘Lonely Women “ as played by Geri on her album ‘Etudes’.

I have even used the Lonely Woman tonality of D but I then take a very linear (rather than harmonic) approach to the melody – sometimes only writing in two or three parts.


What is it like writing for NYJO?

This is my second commission for NYJO. My first was a piece called “HUSH“ which was played so beautifully at the Proms in 2012. It wasn’t an easy chart as the players had to play beyond the notes to make it work. The feel I asked for needed a mature and subtle approach, and all credit to Mark Armstrong and the band, it was one of the best performances I’ve heard! I do know many of the players from my work at the Royal Academy, Guildhall and NYJC courses so it has been great (as Ellington and Kenny Wheeler always did) to write for some of the sounds and personalities that I know! Tom Smith (on 2nd Alto) gets one of the solos as he’s doing such a great job copying the chart for me! NYJO is a great band of very talented players so I am looking forward to the first play-through.


There have been a lot of efforts recently to increase women’s involvement in jazz (including NYJO’s EQ Project), where they have historically been underrepresented. How has PRSF’s funding helped you in this process? What advice would you give to other female jazz musicians and composers?

Funding from the PRS Foundation has been absolutely crucial. It really has highlighted the work of women writers of the past and present and has even inspired me to step up and finally front my own big band. I really encourage more women writers to do the same …there’s nothing like hearing your music played by large forces in glorious technicolour!


An Interview with Nikki Iles

Pictured Nikki Iles (left) and her inspiration behind Wild Oak, Geri Allen (right)


Get your tickets to hear this world premiere as part of our Female Jazz Icons concert programme in Middlesbrough at 3pm on Saturday 20 October. We will also be featuring our recent new commission from Laura Jurd The Earth Keeps Spinning (as premiered at our BBC Prom in August), as well as her recent arrangement for NYJO of Mary Lou Williams’ Zodiac Suite – definitely not one to miss!

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