Manchester is in for a true summer treat at the end of June, when the Royal Northern College of Music Big Band performs with pianist and composer Nikki Iles and guitarist Mike Walkergiving jazz lovers the chance to hear what Steve Berry describes as Iles’s “sumptuous arrangements”. Feature by Martin Chilton
Double bass maestro Steve Berry, once of Loose Tubes and now Head of Jazz and Improvisation at the RNCM, says he is excited to be hosting such distinguished musicians in a marvelous setting – the college’s centerpiece Opera Theatre. “It is actually the room we played in with Loose Tubes in 1986. There was a Channel Four documentary about Loose Tubes that went out the following year, with footage of us at that same venue.” Iles and Walker will be joined by students who were not even born when that television special was made.
The concert program has been selected by Dunstable-born Iles, and she honed some pieces during her recent COVID-delayed Jazz Orchestra tour. “I saw Nikki and her big band in Sheffield and I was, unsurprisingly, knocked out by her work,” Berry notes. “There is such a lot of loving detail in her meticulous arrangements. As I sat there, I thought it would be so wonderful for the students at the Royal Northern to get their chops around these pieces. With Nikki’s music, there is a space integral to it forever reserved for Mike Walker. I asked the RNCM can we please have Mike along as well, and happily they made him an offer that he didn’t refuse. It was a total win for me.”
Iles will perform some recent compositions and orchestras, including ones inspired by trailblazing female pianist Geri Allen and groundbreaking Labor MP Ellen Wilkinson. As well as these new compositions, Iles will, explains Berry, “leaven things up” with a handful of songs from the “standards repertoire”; pieces that give an inkling of where she started out after graduating from the Leeds College of Music. “There is a Thad Jones-Mel Lewis piece in there and the big band performers will be playing what in the pop world they would call ‘covers’.” One of them is an out-and-out, take-no-prisoners swinger. It was Nikki’s call to want to show a little bit of her roots in her thinking.”
Berry has tried to match Iles’s recent concert line-up and the augmented band for the Manchester concert includes a five-piece saxophone section, along with a dedicated clarinet and bass clarinet chair. There is also an additional flute player and two other flutes who come in for a handful of pieces. In all, Iles and Walker will be accompanied by a nine-piece wind section, plus four trumpets and four trombones along with the regular rhythm section.
For the student musicians, the gig offers a superb opportunity to spread their musical wings. When Iles played with Hamburg’s acclaimed NDR Big Band, there were times when a pianist took over at the keys while Iles, in Berry’s humorous phrase, “just waved her wand in front of the band.” In this RNCM gig, a student pianist will take over at the piano for a couple of tunes. “There will be the same interesting mixture of Iles directing and playing, just like with the NDR,” adds Berry.
The college is using the build-up to the 30 June concert as a performance project, with several days of intensive rehearsals. “There will be one of the college’s guitarists at the concert, too, but his vibe is to be Mike’s understudy, if you like,” Berry says. “There will be times in the gig where Mike will pass the ball to the student guitarist to take center stage but there are moments where only Mike can take the lead. For that young guitarist, it is such a fantastic thing to be mentored at close range by someone of his caliber.”
Berry succeeded Mike Hall in the summer of 2019 and soon after the pandemic cemented a freeze on budgets and performances. Although he has done his best to guide students through their training, the “Zoom culture” has not been without its problems. “It was the hardest year’s work I have ever done in my life,” Berry explains. “It meant doing hours of preparation for each digital class. Music is an interactive art form and doing it online is a non-sequitur.” Berry recalls that there was even one student from Mexico who did his entire first year online, from lessons that took place in the dead of night in his time zone.
Some northern jazz clubs and venues have found that crowds have been slow to come back following COVID and Berry hopes that the appearance of Iles and Walker will entice the audience back to live music in all its glory. “There are a lot of people around Manchester who have a great affection for Nikki and Mike, so I am hoping a lot of music lovers will pick up on it and come back,” he said, “hopefully joining the core fans and the friends and relations of people on stage who swell the audience anyway. Mostly I am hoping that it is the quality of Nikki and her music that will attract people.”
Berry says that back in the late 1970s, after doing two years of a fine art degree, the professors gave him a year off because it seemed clear to them his future path was as a musician. “The college where I studied has now been demolished and, as I always delighted in telling people, I am now in my forty-third gap year,” he jokes.
As well as his own distinguished playing career, with Django Bates, Mike Westbrook and Loose Tubes, Berry is enjoying introducing RCNM students to the joys of jazz. He relishes showing students who may have grown up with classical or brass band traditions (“there is a reason trumpeter Henry Lowther likes to call it the Royal College of
Northern Music,” Berry quips) the meeting points between their influences and a pantheon of jazz greats such as big band legends Duke Ellington and Count Basie.
For now, however, there is the exciting prospect of pairing student players who are “really strong, burgeoning improvisers” with the established class of Iles’s arrangements and compositions. “It is just going to be such an honor for those students to be part of the special night we are planning. Her music is so meticulous and incredibly well-crafted that I can’t wait,” Berry says.
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The RNCM Big Band with Nikki Iles (piano) and Mike Walker (guitar) will perform at the RNCM Theatre, Manchester, on Thursday 30 June, 7:30 pm.
Interview with Nikki Iles by John Fordham
Loose Tubes (with Steve Berry)Bath 1986, on YouTube