Nikki Iles and Friends

Products featured on Pianodao are selected for review by ANDREW EALES.

Nikki Iles will be known to many readers for her Jazz on a Winter’s Night book and subsequent series for OUP, and her recent Tales for Alice and Tales for Peter Pan collections for EVC Music, all of which I have been hugely impressed by.

Over the years, Iles has also contributed to the ABRSM Jazz Piano Syllabus and composed several memorable pieces for the board’s standard piano grades, which are always popular choices. And now she’s back with two new books of jazz pieces for ABRSM, between them bringing 29 new piano solos to the intermediate and advanced repertoire, composed and arranged by Iles and a stellar array of luminaries of the contemporary jazz world.

With the drawing power of Iles and friends, and the marketing clout of ABRSM, these two books are sure to fly off the shelves, so let’s take a closer look while we can!

“On a Mission”

According to ABRSM:

Nikki Iles & Friends is a collection of original compositions and new arrangements written by Nikki Iles and her friends from the world of jazz. Expertly curated and commissioned by Nikki herself, these books contain piano pieces at Grades 4-8 level written by some of the best-known figures on the jazz scene.
Also including a CD with recordings of every piece, each book provides a wealth of new and original jazz piano music for those seeking to explore accessible jazz repertoire, build a recital or a programme for ABRSM Performance Grades, or simply play for pleasure.”

It’s perhaps an “elephant in the room” that ABRSM haven’t updated their (superb) jazz piano syllabus in the last two decades, and seem not to be imminently doing so. With those books ending at Grade 5, these new volumes will to some extent meet the huge demand for more jazz material as a follow up.

It should be noted however that none of the pieces in these two books require improvisation. These are fully-scored pieces, suitable for more advanced players from any background.

Those who enjoy playing jazz alongside their classical repertoire will feel right at home, while those who have previously worked through ABRSM’s formative jazz materials will equally find these books a great sequel (and will in any case hopefully have the skills to further develop and improvise around the music here).

Teachers will be wise to the likelihood that pieces from here will undoubtedly appear in the main piano syllabi of the next few years too. In short, the books are fairly much an essential purchase for a variety of reasons, and I think we’ll be seeing a lot of them in the coming years!

The books themselves have eye-catching covers, and are equally brilliantly presented within. The two books have 40 and 56 pages respectively, and I’m particularly delighted that ABRSM have chosen a creamy ivory tint for the paper: so much better than white glare!

Within there is a title page, contents, and a brief introduction in which Iles tells us,

“I wanted to create a series of pieces that would appeal to all ages and reflect the breadth of jazz from its African American roots, through to fusions with folk, classical and world music. I hope this is a starting point for your own interpretations and creativity.”

At the back of each book there is a two page About the pieces spread with a short paragraph on each of them, filling in more about their background.

And there, attached to the back inner cover in its own plastic sleeve, is the CD, one for each of the two collections. These include solo performances (only) of the pieces from each book, in well-recorded demonstration performances by Iles herself. They are an essential element of the publication, because so many of the rhythmic inflections and emphases within jazz piano playing must be “caught not taught”.

Those without a CD player are, however, out of luck. At present these tracks aren’t available digitally online or via streaming services (I suspect this may change in due course).

“Fly me to the moon”

So what are the pieces like? As one might expect from Nikki Iles and her friends (some of them reappearing from the ABRSM Jazz Piano syllabus of old) there is a wide range here, referencing a significant world of music, but always reinterpreted for the present day.

In short, if you are a fan of Iles’ music and approach, you are in for a real treat!

Here is the list of included titles, along with their composers and arrangers, who really are something of a “who’s who” of the contemporary jazz scene:

Book 1: Intermediate (Grades 4-6)

  1. Blues for Rufus – Nikki Iles
  2. Flyin’ High – Jason Rebello
  3. Moon River – arr. Nikki Iles
  4. Cool Shoes – Julian Joseph
  5. Breezin’ Through – Nikki Iles
  6. Blues at Sunrise – Kate Williams
  7. Ain’t Misbehavin’ – arr. Nikki Iles
  8. West Hollywood Avenue – Andrea Vicari
  9. Beto – Nikki Iles
  10. The Bounce – Zoe Rahman
  11. Basin Street Blues – arr. Nikki Iles
  12. I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free – arr. Pete Churchill
  13. Groove Bait – Tim Garland
  14. Boss Cat – Gwilym Simcock
  15. Stormy Weather – arr. Nikki Iles
  16. Dark Avenger – Jason Rebello

Book 2: Intermediate to Advanced (Grades 6-8)

  1. Fly Me to the Moon – arr. Nikki Iles
  2. Tilt that Woolly Hat – Julian Joseph
  3. Abide with Me – arr. Pete Churchill
  4. Shenandoah – arr. Nikki Iles
  5. Lakeshore Drive – Andrea Vicari
  6. Eco Warrior – Tim Garland
  7. Yewfield (based on Clapperclowe) – arr. Nikki Iles
  8. Time Will Tell – Kate Williams
  9. Lower East Side – Nikki Iles
  10. Kickin’ Off – Jason Rebello
  11. A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square – arr. Nikki Iles
  12. Go with the Flow – Zoe Rahman
  13. On a Mission – Gwilym Simcock

Listening to the two CD’s, it’s immediately clear that these collections contain uniformly wonderful music. And for those of us who have long wanted ABRSM to give us some more jazz piano material, there’s also that joyous feeling of “the band is back together”.

“Go with the Flow”

Helpfully, ABRSM have arranged all of the pieces in order of difficulty, meaning that a student or jazz enthusiast can start with Blues for Rufus and systematically work through the material all the way to On a Mission should they so wish.

That said, exact ABRSM grade levels for each piece aren’t given, although they would have been reassuring for those thinking of including a piece from these books in their “Performance Grade”. I guess this will give people plenty to discuss and speculate about on the forums!

Playing through the collections, even the first book offers plenty to challenge the reluctant or occasional jazzer. It is worth going through all of these pieces, with their recordings, and avoiding short cuts. And by the end of the second book, the pieces have reached quite a difficult level.

As for the notation, the scores are excellently and spaciously engraved. Clarity and instructions throughout are superb. Fingering suggestions, though, are minimal even in the first book, and almost non-existent in the second. For those not yet fluent in jazz figurations (and I suspect these books will usher many a pianist into a bigger jazz appreciation) I think more help here would have been useful.

Minor caveats aside though, these really are excellently presented materials, and a reminder of the ABRSM publishing division’s ability to turn out a truly first-class product.

“Time will Tell”

In case it isn’t yet clear, I’m very impressed and excited about these books, and anticipate using them a lot in the coming years.

The music here is fabulous, from memorable jazz originals (quite an achievement in itself, given such a rich heritage) and delicious arrangements of a few choice “standards”, there’s not a weak moment.

And hats off to ABRSM for bringing us these brilliant publications in the midst of the most difficult circumstances. I have no hesitation in declaring this series an “epic win” for ABRSM. Don’t hesitate in getting copies!

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Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is the author of HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC, published worldwide by Hal Leonard. He is a widely respected piano educator and published composer based on Milton Keynes UK.