Q&A with Niki King – Jazz Queen

Edinburgh-born jazz singer Niki King can certainly claim to have been around for a while. The daughter of revered local jazz stalwart Freddie King, she was still in her teens when her first band’s debut record was released on the iconic Acid Jazz label (Jamairiquai, Brand New Heavies).

In 1997, King signed up for Fionna Duncan’s jazz vocal course, and though she’d been singing for years, the experience she gained from the the course proved invaluable. Just four years later, and having established herself as one of the brightest young things on the UK jazz scene, she picked up the prestigious Perrier Young Jazz Vocalist of the Year Award.

A further nomination for the prestigious Spirit of Scotland music award followed, and over the years she has performed at some of the great jazz venues like Ronnie Scott’s and the Blue Note.

King, who is these days rightly regarded as one of the outstanding Scottish vocalists of our time, talks us through her latest show, The Songs of Duke Ellington, which returns to the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival this year following last year’s success.

  • You’re paying homage to Duke Ellington again this year – has the show changed any from last year?
    And if so, what’s different this time?

Jazz queen, Niki King
Edinburgh-born jazz singer Niki King

As the show was a sell out last year I was asked to bring the show back again this year.   However, no two performances are the same and that’s what I love about live music.   Also, the venue is different this year and the Spiegeltent is beautiful and the perfect setting for this show.

  • What are your favourite Duke Ellington songs to perform?

I particularly love Duke’s collaborative work with Billy Strayhorn and I really love Something To Live For and Hey, Buddy Bolden.  They are not as well known and we have introduced our own sound to the arrangements which I love, especially with the harp.

  • When did you first discover the Duke’s music?
    How much of an influence on you was he?

Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington

I discovered Duke’s music when I was very young.  I loved that he was not only an incredible pianist and composer but an outstanding entertainer.  His own style and that of his band was impeccable. Presentation alongside musical skill has always been important to me and great artists such as Duke Ellington were hugely influential.  My dress code for the band is ‘Duke style’ and they know what I mean.

  • Tell us about the musicians you’re performing with at the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival?

I have such a wonderful band – I am performing with the award-winning pianist Euan Stevenson, leading double bassist Mario Caribe, award-winning drummer Stuart Brown and international harpist Alina Bzhezhinska.

  • You’ve been around on the jazz scene for what seems like an eternity now – what’s been some of the highlights of your career? 

Haha … it does seem like an eternity but yet with every new project I always feel like I’m at the beginning again, just with a different level of experience but always  a new challenge.  I have been fortunate enough to have enjoyed many incredible moments throughout my career  –  from launching my first album at The Blue Note in Tokyo to then performing at the Blue Note in New York.  Recording my last album in New York was an incredible experience and I would also say selling out The Queen’s Hall in my home town was a very special time.  The Edinburgh Jazz Festival shows have always been very important to me.  I was asked back as a guest to open for Gregory Porter this year, and it is always an inspiration to perform alongside such huge talent.  The Average White Band and Al Green were also highlights, as was my first film song-score being performed live last year at the BFI in London.  However, it is always my current show that is most important to me, alongside my incredible band and all the amazing artists/musicians that I have had the joy and pleasure of working with over the years.

  • Being a local girl, you’ve played just about everywhere in Edinburgh over the years – what’s your favourite venue to play?
    Do you prefer big spaces like the Queen’s Hall, or do you prefer more intimate gigs in the likes of Henry’s?

    jazz_festival_logo

Wow, Henry’s is going back.  Yes I had some fantastic shows there and of course venues such as The Queens Hall are amazing to play but I guess it’s such a combination of everything from the venue, the audience, the sound, the lighting.  One year I performed at The Hub and 30 of my extended family fr

om around the world were there, so that was a very special show.  Cafe Graffiti days were amazing and I also loved playing at La Belle Angelle.  I guess I do like intimate spaces, though, where everyone can feel connected and share in the moment.  Live music is so present and I really enjoy playing venues, whatever size, that always understand the importance of the whole experience for everyone – especially the sound and lighting.

  • The Spiegeltent is an iconic venue itself, and you’ve played there before of course.
    Are you looking forward to performing there again? 

Yes, I adore the Spiegeltent.  It’s so beautiful inside and I’m very much looking forward to playing there again – it is a wonderful venue for this show.

  • Apart from yourself, who would you recommend people go to see at the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival?

Is there anyone you’re excited to see yourself? Naomi Shelton and The Gospel Queens – I am also a fan of Daptone records, so I have no doubt this will be a great show.  I grew up listening to George Benson, so it would be amazing to see him live at the festival. Ambrose Akinmusire Quartet and Enrico Zanisi Trio will be a beautiful show, and also Orkestra Del Sol are fantastic, as are the Boteco Trio.

  • What musical plans do you have for the rest of the year?

I have some exciting new collaborations planned with some amazing new players and I plan to go into the studio later in the year to record a new album, which I’ll hopefully tour next year.  In the meantime, I am very proud of this current show and the quintet and I’m very excited about our forthcoming show at The Spiegeltent.  It will be beautiful and fun and like Duke says “there are two kinds of music – good music and the other kind”.  I hope this show will have everyone feeling the good kind.

Niki King Quintet: The Songs of Duke Ellington, Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival, The Spiegeltent, George Square, Saturday, 25 July, 9pm, £15

words: Gary Flockhart