Bursting on to the RSL scene in this week’s Classical in Conversation blog is British jazz powerhouse, Nikki Iles.

Fundamental Friendships

Being a student of The Royal Academy of Music and graduate of Leeds College of Music is always a fairly promising start to a career in composition. The beginning of Nikki’s career was defined by getting her fingers into as many musical pies as possible, a leaf that we could all take from her book when trying to forge a career in the music industry. Making a lot of connections was really important to Nikki, and this certainly benefitted her later on in her career too.

Her first real opportunity to compose came with the group Emanon, alongside her then-husband Richard Iles, guitarist Mike Walker and saxophonist Iain Dixon. Nikki herself described this as “a meeting of kindred spirits”, and they proved to be likeminded friends that would stay (and play!) alongside her for a number of years. They were all members of the Creative Jazz Orchestra, who throughout the years have worked with some enormous names in contemporary music like Kenny Wheeler and Mark Anthony Turnage.

And thus began Nikki’s incredible composition career - commissions came flowing in! A commission from the Creative Jazz Orchestra resulted in her 1994 “Printmakers Suite” which celebrated the role of women in jazz (yes, Nikki!), and a piece for the London Sinfonietta Ellington Celebrations in 1999. Added to that, Nikki wrote a piece for The National Youth Jazz Orchestra which was performed at the BBC Proms in 2012!

Service to Jazz!

Despite her busy gigging schedule, Nikki Iles also managed to cultivate a hugely successful teaching career – where does she find the time?! Think endless masterclasses and summer schools, alongside strong connections with The Royal Academy of Music and Middlesex University – Nikki really is the definition of having many strings to your bow (or your piano, in her case!). She has been recognised with two nominations of the Parliamentary Jazz Awards, in 2007 and 2009, for her Services to Jazz Education.

We have the pleasure of including not one, but two compositions from this front runner in British jazz in our Classical syllabi. In Grade 2 Piano, you’ll find “The Cheshire Cat”, taken from Nikki’s 2018 collection, Piano Tales for Alice, a set of compositions inspired by characters from the legendary Alice in Wonderland. In this piece, you’ll notice that both hands have very independent roles and jobs to fulfil. As Nikki is often praised for delivering “rhythmic surprises”, this piece would be no exception to that!

The second Iles work you’ll find in the RSL Classical Piano syllabus is “Lost Boy Blues”. Similarly to “The Cheshire Cat”, this piece was taken from Nikki’s Piano Tales for Peter Pan, a selection of works to bring to life the characters of Peter Pan through the keys. This short piece packs in a whole range of jazz techniques – think walking bass, syncopation, call and response – and for an early grade introduction to jazz, we think this is pretty epic.

Nikki Iles is also present in the RSL Classical Violin syllabus! In Grade 4 you'll find "Harvest Calypso", a lively piece which incorporates an array of jazz styles. You can also find Nikki in Grade 5 with "Hay Barn Blues", taken from her Violin Jazz in Autumn collection. We can't wait to see these performed in the exam room!

We’d love for you to check out Nikki’s work in our syllabus and let us know what you think! She’s alongside some incredible composers like Alexis Ffrench and Béla Bartok, both of whom have featured in Classical in Conversation in recent weeks!