“The piano has it all,” says Nikki Iles. “I love harmony and the process of writing is a big thing for me. In effect, you’ve got the whole orchestra right there . . . at your fingertips.”
As a youngster Iles always had plenty of encouragement. “Father was a semi-pro drummer who played in a skiffle band “but loved jazz” and mother played the piano really well.” Initially Iles’s first instrument was the clarinet with the piano as a second instrument. “When I was 11, I got a scholarship to attend the Royal Academy on Saturdays to study both the clarinet and the piano and so I spent my Saturdays at the Royal Academy until I was 18. But during that period, while I was at secondary school we had a wonderful music teacher called Brian Willoughby who started a swing band and I transferred from the clarinet to the alto saxophone.”
We momentarily return to the piano. “My first piano was a Yamaha upright which I shall always remember,” says Iles, noticeably amused. I ask the obvious question. “…Because I scratched my name on it with a compass! Now I want to tell you about my first saxophone. I picked it up in a junk shop for £25 and was attracted to it by the lovely gold lacquer. It was a ‘Radio Improved’ Selmer alto. Of course, at that age I had no idea what I had!” Iles went up to Leeds College of Music as a saxophone player. “But by the second year the piano had taken over because I was more interested in the writing and composition.”
When Iles went up to Leeds, she had to buy another piano and so acquired another Yamaha which she still has. “It fits into our cottage – I don’t think we could house a grand.” She continues. “I have a Steinway fund but it’s moving very slowly. I prefer the German Steinways. Sometimes the American ones can be quite bright up top and I do quite like a dark sound. I like the way the Steinway responds. But I also like the Fazioli, that’s a great instrument – they’re warm and they ‘speak’ fantastically. They have a nice one at the Wigmore Hall.”
Iles keeps a mental map of drawing pins dotted around the country pinpointing beautiful pianos. “There is a beautiful Fazioli at Dean Clough in Halifax. The venue is part of a gallery environment that includes an art and sculpture gallery. Sir Ernest Hall and his son Jeremy who run the complex are great supporters of music and it’s Sir Ernest’s own Fazioli that’s in the venue.” Iles is clearly on a roll. “Then there’s The Crucible in Sheffield which has an amazing Steinway – you don’t have to try, you put one note down and it resonates. And partly I think because it’s a theatre in the round, the sound is wonderful. Sometimes you can get some wonderful surprises when you go into a theatre and they have a piano that’s only been used for classical purposes. One that’s never had jazz played on it. The Rosehill Theatre in Whitehaven is a case in point, where they have a lovely big, concert grand Steinway. Then of course there are the occasions when you go to a venue and the people say we’ve got a lovely grand piano – and it turns out to be a ‘boudoir’.” I’m clearly looking confused. Iles explains. “They’ve actually got smaller strings than a decent upright, the bottom end’s non-existent.” She continues. “I’d rather have a good upright than one of those kind of pianos.”
Iles has always been a great educator. “I love teaching – it keeps you on your mettle. I only teach a couple of days a week, but it does allow me to play the gigs that I really want to play, rather than playing gigs that could be soul destroying. I’ve learnt more with that kind of balance and the educational establishments that I work with encourage me to go out and tour. I’m also involved with writing the Associated Boards Jazz Grades.”
The conversation turns to the blurring of the boundaries between classical and jazz. “I’ve been working with the group Renga,” says Iles. “They’re a pool of players from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Scott Stroman leads the group and is a great facilitator of ideas and I’ve been working with Stan Sulzmann and Rufus Reid on the project. I’ve always been interested in that sort of mix – after all, I had a cello and bass clarinet in my first band. The difficulty though with this sort of thing is not to overwrite. You have to get the balance right between improvising and what is written. That’s the challenge – getting them to be freer without the music.” Iles clearly enjoys collaborating on diverse projects with other musicians. “I’m off to New York this coming September to work on an album with Rufus and that great American drummer Jeff Williams. I’m not a natural front person, but I want to get my music out there.
Iles speaks of her jazz career as a ‘long fantastic journey’. As she says, “with jazz you’re always learning new stuff. Different things evolve over time – you don’t have that feeling that you have to play the game. You can be truly true to your art.”