Nikki Yeoh: The Nucleus of it All

Alyn Shipton
Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Pianist Nikki Yeoh spent six years being mentored and encouraged by the celebrated British trumpeter Ian Carr at his weekly Interchange jazz workshops in Camden. Now widely regarded as one of the UK’s leading jazz musicians, Yeoh continues Carr’s legacy with her own acclaimed Infinitum project – and, as Alyn Shipton discovers, a new work written for the National Youth Jazz Orchestra that’s dedicated to the late great trumpeter

Nikki Yeoh (photo: Nick White)
Nikki Yeoh (photo: Nick White)

Back in May, the pianist and composer Nikki Yeoh brought live jazz back to Ronnie Scott’s for the first time since lockdown began, with a free-flowing set by her trio Infinitum, featuring bassist Michael Mondesir and drummer Martin France. It was a key moment for Nikki, as Ronnie Scott’s has played a huge part in her jazz education.

“Back in the day,” she says, when we got together to look back on her path through jazz, “the club [Ronnie’s] was the centre of a whole culture. We’d all be there, on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays – me, the Mondesir brothers, Jason Yarde, a whole generation of us. It was a kind of continual exchange of ideas, and we would develop a rapport with whichever band was playing. We wanted lessons from the best, not through going to uni, or college, but from musicians who were out there working. I suppose you could say we created our own jazz course.

“For me there were some very special connections. Every time Irakere came over, Chucho Valdés would find time to give me piano lessons, and from him I learned the clavé, which is the key to the rhythm and feel of Afro-Cuban jazz.

"Another very special experience was when Betty Carter was at the club. I sat in with her, and straight afterwards she said, ‘You must come to New York!’ So, I was all set to go to America to learn from her, but sadly she died on the very day I left. So I missed that opportunity and for a while I kept thinking ‘What if?’ But now I know just how amazing it was to have had the opportunity to play with her. She really understood the music on such a deep level, and I learned so much from that experience.”

When we spoke, Universal had just announced its British Jazz Explosion reissue programme, including the compilation album Journeys in Modern Jazz: Britain, 1965-1972. Noticing that it included tracks by Don Rendell and Ian Carr, I wondered how influential that generation had been on Nikki, when she began playing jazz in the latter half of the 1980s.

“Interchange, the Interaction Jazz Workshop, in Camden where Ian Carr used to teach was hugely important for me. It was rather ramshackle, with a collection of Portakabins, and I think there’s a gym there nowadays. But it was all about dedication. Ian taught beginners, intermediates and an advanced class. When I began, he quickly moved me up from the first to the second group, because he instinctively knew where your level was, and saw your potential. He didn’t overdo praise, in fact I remember him saying to me quite early on, ‘You don't know what you're doing! You’ve forgotten the chords!’ But it meant that I went home and learned them, and by next week I had everything down.

“But just like Ronnie’s, that Weekend Arts College was a two-way exchange. When I got started in my playing career, Ian became a great supporter of mine and came to all my shows. We’d have lengthy discussions about the music afterwards, and sometimes arguments, but he could see I was always there for the music. I remember he wrote on one report from the Interchange classes, ‘Nikki has a gargantuan appetite for musical experiences.”’

Another beneficiary of Ian Carr’s work in Camden was Julian Joseph. When we discussed it a while ago for a radio programme on jazz education, he said: “Ian was great for teaching us about repertoire we wouldn't normally play. He would introduce us to ‘Stella By Starlight’, ‘Blue Bossa’ and those kinds of tunes. Simple, but still things you had to get your head around if you weren’t familiar with that kind of harmony, or harmonic movement. Ian would write out things for a piano player or horn player to do and see how well we’d tackle the changes. He’d give us things he’d done with the United Jazz and Rock Ensemble, or things from Nucleus. We had all these challenges playing pieces in different time signatures.”

Nikki Yeoh - the young composer (photo: Damian Duncan)

Some time before his death, 12 years ago, I talked to Ian himself about those classes, and he laughed at the memory: “That year I had nine composers in the group! In some respects that was quite hard for me, but I’m pleased to have been instrumental in getting Julian Joseph and Nikki Yeoh to write some of their first compositions.”

Nikki says, unequivocally, “That’s where my journey as a composer began. Ian encouraged me to bring in my own compositions, and when we were working on them, we might find he’d brought in people like Eberhard Weber or Mike Stern to the class. Together they made us realise that jazz wasn’t just about playing ‘Autumn Leaves’ but they opened our minds to being composers of now!

“I went to those Camden classes for six years. My memory is that Ian was always there. He might have been out on the road with a band, but he still made it back to North London to teach every Sunday. He welcomed everyone as long as they wanted to improvise and play, and come to class every week, and practice in between. I think I learned so much from it, that I try now to teach the same way.”

“Students in my workshops learned how to rehearse,’ Ian told me. ‘Always with a new piece I’d get the rhythm section to run it down first, and have all the horns listen, so that everyone knows all about the piece.’ He went on to say that he found the workshop experience with his students very helpful when it came to listening to his own new compositions for Nucleus.

I had a feeling that it wasn’t just Ian from whom Nikki had learned, among that older generation of British jazz players.

“That’s right,” she says. “I had lessons from Don Rendell at school! I met him quite separately and at the beginning I don't even think I knew about his connection to Ian. At 13 I wanted to learn the saxophone, so the school loaned me an instrument, and Don was the teacher. ‘Do you know what jazz is?’ he asked me. And then he gave me the names of players to check out. He played on my GCSE music final performance and later he played on one of my pieces. I suppose it’s all part of that ‘gargantuan appetite’ that Ian identified!”

This brought us back to talking about Infinitum, which Nikki has been leading for most of her professional life, following those early days at Interchange.

She reflects: “Being with them is one of those experiences where, when you're playing on stage, you just know what is going on. You don't have to say anything. We have a real understanding of each other and how the music flows. We follow each other’s lead as things can change in the moment. You can't get that kind of feeling overnight. I suppose you could say the band is more of a marriage than a date – but we truly are best friends, and that applies just as much with Martin France, who’s been on drums for some of our more recent gigs, as well as our regular drummer Mark Mondesir. It means that when I compose, I am often writing specifically for them, which is something that really came home to me when we did my new Café Oran project at the International Piano Trio Festival at Ronnie’s in 2019, with Shirley Smart and Demi Garcia Sabat, in a set paying tribute to Maurice El Medioni.

“That was a great experience, but I think with Infinitum, even with pieces written earlier, we have this innate ability to take in ideas from hip hop, or to land on a backbeat groove, or to move into different time signatures, just in the moment. I feel Michael and Mark are rather like fish in a stream, moving with the current, and so they’re there when I take off into a solo, just as I am there for them. It’s taken years of experience to reach that point. Of course, I do tailor my writing to who’s in a particular band, but with Infinitum Mark and Michael also know those points when I won't negotiate, and they know ‘It has to be like this!’ But they always rise to the challenge!”

After her first broadcast with the trio in 1995 (in this case with Keith LeBlanc on drums) Nikki was back on the airwaves with the band in 1997 at that year’s Bath Festival jazz weekend. There she premiered a really ambitious work for Infinitum Plus (the regular trio plus guests), with a festival commission called Speechmik X-ploration. It was a hugely ambitious multi-media piece, with back projections running along with the performance, and speech and poetry interwoven with the music. The poem at the core of the piece was about ‘justice and equality’ and ‘a musical notion’ that would unite ‘all in every nation’, and it was recorded for playback during the show in several languages including Urdu, Italian, and Polish as well as English.

One of her big influences at the time was another musician she had encountered at Ronnie’s, namely Hermeto Pascoal.

And she remembers: “I liked the way Hermeto would play things like a football commentary in some of his work, and that every musical phrase would come out of the rhythms and pitch of the spoken words. I was trying to do something similar”.

Soon we will get the chance to hear this piece again, as Nikki is reworking and revising it for NYJO and a special group of guest players including saxophonist Xhosa Cole, as well as a select number of string players.

But at the same time, Nikki is working on a separate new commission, a companion piece, for the 2022 season.

“It’s called Nucleus,” she says. “I’ve dedicated it to Ian and to all the educators who gave up their weekends to teach young musicians. You don't get big rewards for doing this, but there are still players who willingly give up their time, up and down the country, to help young musicians and get them started as Ian Carr did for us.

"Ian would have been 90 years old in 2023, and so it seems the right time to celebrate his contribution to fostering a whole generation of young musicians.”

Nikki Yeoh’s Café Oran will be supporting the Avishai Cohen Trio at the Barbican, London on 16 November as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival

This article originally appeared in the August issue of Jazzwise. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

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