I think it may be one of Nikki Iles’ characteristic traits. The trick of sidling up to even the most familiar of tunes or climatic moments, so that having been drawn in by a mysterious harmonic sequence or some textural ripples, you find yourself surprised as a singing melody or a racing groove has emerged almost un-noticed. It happens more than once on last year’s fine trio album ‘Hush’ and this gig started that way. The whole band joined in creating the atmosphere as Nikki’s resonant chords insinuated themselves into the concert hall at the fabulous, still new buildings, of the Royal Welsh College. Somehow the music morphed and by the time they’d launched into Kenny Wheeler’s Enowena, a typically soaring melody of leaps, twist and turns over a racing even pulse, I was hooked. The repertoire, drawing on an eclectic range of sources from Steve Swallow, Ralph Towner, Joni Mitchell as well Niki Iles originals and the ever present Kenny Wheeler, meant plenty of joyful exuberance in the playing suffused with a reflective almost sweet melancholia. At one point, as Mike Walker explained the utterly bleak back story to Joni Mitchell’s ‘2 grey rooms’ a collective fit of giggles was needed to break the tension.
This a fabulous band of musicians who weave improvisations of real melodic beauty over complex and angular structures. Mike Walker’s gorgeous tune Clockmakers (is that one of my favourite tunes ever? .. maybe!) evoked a dazzling solo from Nikki, flowing, melodic line building on flowing melodic line. Mike Walker himself pulled out solo after a solo but a standout was on Kenny Wheeler’s Everyone’s Song but My Own. He found rhythmic figures and phrases that seemed to surprise even him. And flowing around, up and over it all, blending beautifully were Norma Winstone’s voice and Mark Lockheart’s saxophones. It was all propelled unfussily but with huge energy and subtlety by Steve Watts’ bass and the drums of James Maddren. Just in case it all sounds a bit solemn, there was more than a twinkle in the eye as they played us out with a sort of rocky, scottish reel cum folk song written by Nikki giving Mike Walker the chance to rev up his rock chops on guitar before whipping off his glasses for the last time as if to say ‘what do think of that then?’ . They followed it with a wonky country style Steve Swallow song. Its a testament to this band that they have quite a reputation with no recordings out there (notwithstanding the individual reputations of all them), but I hear a rumour that they may be putting that right soon. Can’t wait.