Nikki Iles

Acclaimed jazz artist Nikki Illes is celebrating her 50th birthday and going on tour with new outfit The Printmakers to celebrate. M spoke to her ahead of the gigs to find out how she first discovered her passion for the genre…

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 29 Apr 2013
  • min read
Nikki Iles is one of the UK’s most acclaimed jazz artists. In honour of her upcoming 50th birthday, she is taking her new outfit - The Printmakers - out on the road.

Featuring the likes of Norma Winstone MBE on vocals, James Maddren on drums, Mike Walker on guitar, Mark Lockheart on sax and Steve Watts on double bass, the aim of the group is to explore Nikki’s extensive back catalogue as well as perform newer songs created during an intensive recording session in Ambleside in the Lake District.

Nikki’s love for music has seen her perform with a huge variety of acts over the last few years - The Julian Arguelles Octet, The Kenny Wheeler Big Band, The Anglo Canadian Project as well as The Printmakers have all been vehicles for her improvisations while she’s also a much respected mentor for new and upcoming jazz performers.

M spoke to her about the forthcoming tour and how The Printmakers came together…

How did you first get into jazz?

I was originally a classical clarinet as a kid. It was Jack Brymer playing a Mozart Clarinet Concierto that really started my love for music. So not jazz at all.

My dad was a skiffle drummer who played a bit of jazz. He made me listen to Oscar Peterson’s Night Train and Let There Be Love with Nat Cole and George Shearing and these were the first records which had a big influence on me. It’s just very infectious music.

I attended the Bedfordshire Youth Jazz band and found it a good way to meet like-minded artists. One evening the pianist was ill and I just had that classic chance to fill in. I’ve never looked back.

Do you prefer songwriting on your own or with others?

I always wanted to work as a group player and piano was always a great way to create, write and improvise. It was this love for working as part of a group which sent me towards improvising. Some of the best things I’ve written work because I wrote them with the people in a particular group in mind. Their sound, their approach - it definitely inspires me.

How did The Printmakers come together?

It was at the Manchester Jazz festival five or six years ago and the organisers told me I could put together any band I liked. This was my chance to make something mine. I’d worked with Mike Walker before and he was a friend - so a natural choice. Mark Lockhart was playing with Steve Berry and I’d always loved his music. I’d played and taught with Steve Watts. We’ve worked regularly over the years. He has this ability to allow musicians to take flight when performing. He’s very ego-less when it comes to music and having someone like that in the band is great. It keeps the whole thing together and allows the band to soar.

The drummer wasn’t settled at first and the music is quite broad - US jazz, classical, folk, groove, there are a lot of colours in a way so it was tough to find the suitable player. But I met James Madden through a band I was teaching with Kit Downes. His flexible style works perfectly.

Having James on board is a lovely way to bridge the age gap. He's in his mid twenties and Norma is 71. It means the breadth of different experience and generations is unique to this band.

How important is arts council funding to projects like yours?

It wouldn’t have happened without it. We couldn’t pay people properly. Especially with funding being cut, the economics of it just don’t work. In fact the last time we went on tour I funded the shows with £400-£500 myself. Sometimes, it really is pay to play.

Are there specific challenges facing the jazz genre?

Yes but the paradox is that there is lots of energy and talent in jazz. People aren’t wanting to stop being musicians.

However, if you compare the UK with Finland or Norway, musicians are funded to take sabbatical years to work on a project or develop their music. It’s more difficult in a country where money for the arts is in decline.

The economics of making an album don’t really work out. There are less and less ways for record shops and specialist shops to survive. But I think jazz is a political act and has always thrived when it’s up against things.

As a result, it’s almost gone back to being a cottage industry where lots of collectives full of musicians and independent labels run smaller gigs. That is a great thing.

Are there many new artists coming through?  

In this country the likes of Kit Downes and Jacob Collier are really inspiring new artists. Jacob is so talented. But there’s so many in a way and I fear I’ll upset some by not remembering everyone! But it’s really wonderful to see so many coming through.

Read the full list of tour dates for Nikki’s upcoming tour.