Hailed as the heroine of British Jazz Nikki Iles says she is excited to perform at Ribble Valley Jazz and Blues Festival

On the last night of the London Jazz Festival, at a jam-packed Cadogan Hall, Nikki Iles presented her spine-chilling composition in the company of the Hamburg jazz orchestra, the NDR Bigband.
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It was, said Iles, a project ‘years in the making’ for a formidably creative lady who has become known as the heroine of British Jazz.

“Last year was very different, being at home writing the programme for the orchestra,” said Iles, who provides the headline act at the 2024 Ribble Valley Jazz and Blues Festival, Friday to Sunday, May 3rd to the 6th.

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Hailed as the 'heroine of British Jazz' Nikki Iles says she is excited to perform at Ribble Valley Jazz and Blues FestivalHailed as the 'heroine of British Jazz' Nikki Iles says she is excited to perform at Ribble Valley Jazz and Blues Festival
Hailed as the 'heroine of British Jazz' Nikki Iles says she is excited to perform at Ribble Valley Jazz and Blues Festival
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She said: “It was a kind of diary entitled: ‘A Love of Imperfect Things’ which is me and the band. Music has taken me to all sorts of places in the world, so it is important to reflect, to write. I watched the seasons go by very slowly and I felt quite isolated, so a lot of things seeped into the compositions.”

Many things had moved her during that solitary time of reflection when crafting her Big Band programme, not least the awfulness of the Ukraine War. “There’s things like that terrible war that you just can’t ignore as a writer,” she said. “It is harrowing, and as a mother I can’t imagine what it is must be like, trying to keep your children safe from the danger and violence.”

One of her compositions, ‘Words Fail’, is written about the conflict. “We used an accordion at the very beginning of it, which is unusual,” she said. “There’s something bare and raw about the sound of that instrument, like a human voice, and when the orchestra played the first notes, I felt the enormity of it.

She added: “People occasionally ask me what it is like to conduct an orchestra, when just moving your hands up and down can increase

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or slow the tempo of the sound. Well, it is an incredible and deep-seated emotion – and a great privilege every time I stand there.”

Iles writes all her music long hand and then transfers the finished compositions on to her computer. She said: “The day I finished “A love of Imperfect Things’ I went to London to meet a friend for lunch. I’d downloaded my final work, that had taken the best part of a year to write, on to my lap-top. On my way home, on the Tube, I looked in my bag and my computer had gone. My heart sank, I couldn’t believe it, months and months of work, my new compositions.

“There was a tracker on the computer and the police said it was somewhere in Hackney, and that the thieves would have probably broken it up in bits for parts, so there was next to no chance of recovery. I had a week to write the compositions again for nineteen different solo musicians, so I spent the next seven days desperately trying to recover them from my head and in time for the concert, which was a massive challenge.

“It is probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.”

Iles has always risen to the challenge, though, emerging as one of British jazz music’s most versatile composers, bandleaders and

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arrangers. She has many plaudits and awards to her name, including the British Empire Medal for her services to music and was named Professor of Jazz piano at the Royal College of Music. And she enjoys a parallel career as a widely respected music tutor. “When I opened the letter (from the Palace) I thought, ‘This can’t be me, they’ve made a mistake,’ she says modestly. “So, I phoned them and said: ‘You’ve got the wrong person.’

“When I went to get the award there’s all these incredible and inspiring people, many who had done so much good with their lives, often overcoming crushing adversity. It was very humbling indeed. I love getting people together. I think I’ve been put on this planet to

teach, and that’s what I probably enjoy the most.”

Although London is her home now, Iles served her apprenticeship in the North, where she tutored, studied and performed for many

years. “I’m quite a home-spun person and I loved living in the north,” she said. “I taught music in Oldham and Manchester and lived in Huddersfield and Leeds, so I’m definitely a Northerner. Some musicians burn brightly early on, but I gently just got on with things.

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“I never knew how to play jazz when I started out, I had to fight and work incredibly hard for it.”

Her much anticipated appearance at the Ribble Valley Jazz and Blues Festival will see her conduct her own ensemble, the Nikki Iles Jazz

Orchestra, an all-star band including locally born saxophonist Andy Schofield. He will be flying in from Prague, where he lives, to perform with her 18-piece orchestra.

Iles added: “I’ll also be doing a workshop with my old friend Trish Ferrarin and Elbow Room, an all women group of musicians from the

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Ribble Valley. It will be great fun. Trish is a little fireball and such a passionate musical teacher, a wonderful pianist. We were at college together, and we called her the Italian dynamo. I’m really looking forward to coming up to Clitheroe again, it is such a lovely festival.

The Nikki Iles Jazz Orchestra play the Grand Theatre, Clitheroe, on Monday, May 6th. Tickets for the Ribble Valley Jazz and Blues Festival are available at www.thegrandvenue.co.uk

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