10 July 2015


Stephanie Nilles
I was in The Spotted Cat, New Orleans, one evening in April 2015, enjoying a thrilling programme by Aurora Nealand's band. Partnering her on the front line was James Evans, and these two outstanding reed players were producing some thrilling choruses both individually and together, and obviously enjoying themselves hugely. Aurora is the kind of player who seems hardly ever to stop smiling, even when she is playing.

But something else quite wonderful also caught my attention.

There was a young lady pianist 'sitting in'; and her playing was possibly the best I have ever heard in a traditional jazz band. In the ensembles and backing the solo choruses, she did just what was needed - lightly sketching in the chords and fitting in with any rhythmic patterns established by the guitar and bass. But  whenever she was given a solo chorus, it was as if Franz Listz had suddenly occupied the piano stool. Using the entire width of the keyboard, she produced some astounding improvisations, notes tumbling and cascading from the keys - but always clearly on the correct harmonic progression. It was thrilling musicianship. On top of that, she even offered an occasional vocal, which she sang in an entertaining way, with an unusual light, girlish voice that brought back memories of the late Blossom Dearie.

Who was this amazing performer? Nobody around me in the dense crowd was able to tell me.

Fortunately, while sheltering from rain a couple of days later, I met Aurora Nealand and had the opportunity to ask. She told me the lady was a good friend of hers - Stephanie Nilles.

Back in England, I consulted the internet to find out more about Stephanie.

She is described as a 'Chicago-born jazz/punk/barrelhouse musician' who has been 'hustling around the United States, Europe, and Canada.... averaging 150 gigs a year, and captivating unsuspecting listeners with a voice that would make Jelly Roll Morton look orthodox and Ma Rainey look sober'.

But her background (I was not surprised to find) was a classical training. She studied piano and cello from the age of six, was a finalist at the Young Concert Artists' International Competition, a gold medalist at the Fischoff Competition, and had performed on National Public Radio on three separate occasions by the age of seventeen. At twenty-two, she had graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Music with a degree in classical piano performance. She moved to New York City, where she began writing songs and performed regularly on the east village anti-folk scene.

Stephanie has made several CDs and has also been involved in numerous music projects in both Europe and America. On the internet, you can find plenty about her activities, but these quotations will give you some insights into Stephanie and her music: '....a highly accomplished, award-winning young pianist with a degree in classical performance and the whole world ahead of her chucks it all over to eke out a bohemian living playing punk clubs and sleeping in her car'; 'Her compositions are often dizzyingly witty'; 'Writing truthful and poignant stories of the world as it is'; 'With a voice that manically switches from sultry soul to wild yelping, not to mention mad piano skills and a wild performance energy, Nilles has the talent to shuffle past the mediocre label props grinding their teeth on Top 40 radio today'.

My message is: if you ever have a chance of hearing Stephanie Nilles playing in a traditional jazz band, jump at it. You will be in for a treat. But I think the opportunities may be exceptionally hard to come by. It seems that playing in a traditional jazz band is something she does all too rarely. I was so lucky to be there on one of those occasions.

This video will give you some idea of what Stephanie Nilles is capable of - just with a voice and a piano:

And with a small band:

Possibly, you may not enjoy her style in these far-from-trad-jazz YouTube videos. But I can assure you that - on that great night in New Orleans - Stephanie accepted all the disciplines of traditional jazz and that her playing in Aurora's band was sensational.