tue 23/07/2024

Nikki Iles featuring the NDR Bigband, EFG London Jazz Festival, Cadogan Hall review - boundless artistry in harmony | reviews, news & interviews

Nikki Iles featuring the NDR Bigband, EFG London Jazz Festival, Cadogan Hall review - boundless artistry in harmony

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

From discombobulated dreamland to surprising codas: Nikki IlesPhoto 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.


Watch Nikki Iles and the NDR Bigband perform "Misfits" at JazzBaltica 2023

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