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Sunday, February 25, 2018

Nikki Iles Masterclass @ The Music Department, Durham University - February 24

(Review by Russell)
Pianist, composer and educator Nikki Iles arrived in Durham on a cold but bright winter’s afternoon. Students filed into the ancient concert hall in Durham University’s Music Department up on Palace Green as Dan Garel and Tristan Bacon made last-minute preparations to the stage set-up. As this Saturday afternoon masterclass was to be given by one of Britain’s finest pianists the availability of a Steinway was a plus point. At least three, maybe more, student pianists were in attendance keen to learn more about the art of jazz piano.
Dan suggested Nikki could, perhaps, begin by outlining her career to date and her current projects. From Leeds College of Music to the London jazz scene to teaching posts to working with a long list of stellar names, Durham’s 2017/18 student cohort was left in little doubt as to Nikki’s achievements and standing on the jazz scene. The theme of the afternoon was to be ‘improvisation’ and so it was but the masterclass would embrace more, much more than this. Nikki arrived by train, bringing with her three compositions for her students to examine; charts by Charles McPherson, Kenny Wheeler and Dave Holland.

The student rhythm section on the stage, the horn players in a broad semi-circle on the floor of the hall, Iles listened to the ensemble with all soloing on McPherson’s Primal Urge. A beaming Iles was fulsome in her praise: Great. You can all play! Having gauged her masterclass participants’ abilities Iles enthusiastically introduced the subject of harmony. Standing in front of a board (see photo) our guest proceeded to scribble down impenetrable (to the non-music student audience!) symbols. The Manhattan Project’s J. Robert Oppenheimer – known as the ‘father of the atomic bomb’ – sprung to mind. Would he have been able to keep up with this high-level stuff?! There was talk of triads, roots  and arpeggios, diminished chords, major this and minor that, gobbledygook to some, but not to our students, they were jotting down ideas or making mental notes as Iles, by now in full flow, scribbled some more. Quick, take a photo…see photo.

Dan Garel led the altos, Zach Fox played tenor. Who’s that on trombone? It’s Matt Jacobs! Durham University alumnus Jacobs, a first-rate pianist (Durham University Big Band, Matt Jacobs Trio), was in town to hook up with some of his old mates and here he was blowing a mean ’bone (see photo). Iles played little piano, preferring to let her students show what they could do. Iles’ enthusiasm did see things overrun a little! Moving on to a Kenny Wheeler chart (sadly, time constraints meant that  Dave Holland’s composition would have to wait for another day) Iles sat, briefly, at the Steinway to play a few bars with the ensemble. All present applauded and a smiling Iles appeared to be slightly embarrassed, eager to get on with matters at hand! At one point Jacobs asked to play piano. Illes happily accommodated his request and it took just a few seconds for our guest to realise just how good a pianist Jacobs is!   

One sensed Iles would have happily extended the masterclass into the early evening but, alas, all good things come to an end and it was at Dan’s suggestion that the afternoon close with a Q&A. A forest of hands shot up – questions asked, questions answered, Iles had been the ideal guest and a group photograph captured the occasion. In years to come those fortunate enough to be a part of Nikki Iles’ illuminating masterclass will look back on the day with fond memories.          

Russell

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