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Emma Rawicz

Emma Rawicz Quintet, The Hive Music & Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 17/06/2023.

Photography: Photograph by Hamish Kirkpatrick of Shrewsbury Jazz Network.

by Ian Mann

June 19, 2023


Ian Mann enjoys this performance by saxophonist & composer Emma Rawicz and her all-star quintet and takes a look at "Chroma", her forthcoming album release for ACT Music + Vision.

Emma Rawicz Quintet, The Hive Music & Media Centre, Shrewsbury, 17/06/2023.

Emma Rawicz – tenor saxophone, Ant Law – guitar, Ivo Neame – keyboards, Conor Chaplin – acoustic & electric bass, Asaf Sirkis – drums

Shrewsbury Jazz Network’s final event before their two month summer break was rewarded with a capacity crowd for this visit from rising star saxophonist and composer Emma Rawicz, who was leading an all star quintet featuring some of the UK’s leading musicians. OK, drummer Asaf Sirkis was born in Israel but he’s a such a busy and popular presence on the British jazz scene that it’s difficult not to think of him as ‘one of our own’.

Rawicz, born in Devon of Polish heritage, was a finalist in the BBC Young Jazz Musician of the Year Competition in 2022, which was won by the Scottish bassist Ewan Hastie. However it’s probably fair to say that Rawicz currently enjoys a higher profile than the winner.

Not that Rawicz is any stranger to picking up awards, in 2021 she was the recipient of the Drake Yolanda Prize and in 2022 won the Parliamentary Jazz Award for ‘Jazz Newcomer of the Year’.

Rawicz, who also plays flute, soprano sax, clarinet, bass clarinet and sings, was a latecomer to jazz, only picking up the tenor sax at age fifteen after a childhood immersed in folk and classical music. She studied jazz at Chetham’s Music School in Manchester and cites fellow saxophonists Joe Henderson, Wayne Shorter, Chris Potter and Donny McCaslin as stylistic influences.

Her progress as both a jazz instrumentalist and a jazz composer has been remarkable and in 2022 she released her début album “Incantation”, recorded with a quintet featuring Ant Law on guitar, Scottie Thomson on piano, Hugo Piper on bass and Finn Genockey on drums and percussion.

The album attracted widespread critical acclaim and the success of the recording, combined with her exciting live performances and an appearance on national TV as part of the BBC competition has made her a ‘name to watch out for’

The Jazzmann was hugely impressed with “Incantation”, in terms of both the playing and the writing and remarked at the time; “this is a young musician and composer that we are surely destined to hear a lot more of. On this evidence she’s definitely a star in the making”.

It’s an observation that was borne out by the quality of tonight’s performance and by a large audience turnout that included many younger jazz listeners, some of the probably around Rawicz’s own age. Bearing in mind that Shrewsbury isn’t a university town and doesn’t have a full time music college this was both impressive and encouraging.

It was to be the second time that I had seen Rawicz perform live this year. At the end of April she had appeared at Clun Valley Jazz in nearby Bishop’s Castle as part of Ivo Neame’s twelve piece ensemble Dodeka, playing music from Neame’s superb 2021 album “Glimpses Of Truth”.

I attended the gig as a paying customer and therefore didn’t cover the performance, but it was exceptional, surpassing most of the events at Cheltenham Jazz Festival, which was taking place at the same time. For me, the Dodeka gig was definitely one of THE jazz events of the year thus far. My review of the “Glimpses Of Truth” recording can be found here;

The success of “Incantation” and the general ‘buzz’ around Rawicz and her music has seen her snapped up by the prestigious German record label ACT, the recorded home of leading European jazz musicians such as pianist Michael Wollny and the late Esbjorn Svensson. It represents quite a coup for Rawicz to be signed by ACT and will ensure that her future releases receive international distribution. We’re talking potential international jazz stardom here.

Rawicz has already recorded her début album for the label. “Chroma” features tonight’s stellar line up with Law on guitar, Ivo Neame on keyboards, Conor Chaplin on acoustic and electric bass and the aforementioned Sirkis at the drums. The album also features a guest appearance by the young vocalist Immy Churchill, Rawicz’s contemporary. “Chroma” is due for official release on August 25th 2023 but Rawicz is already selling advance copies at gigs. I’m grateful to her for agreeing to supply me with a promotional copy, which has helped enormously with the writing of this review.

Like its predecessor “Chroma” features Rawicz’s own writing exclusively and we were to hear all the pieces from the forthcoming album tonight, plus a couple of compositions from the earlier “Incantation”.

“Chroma” features Rawicz doubling on flute and bass clarinet while Neame plays acoustic piano throughout. Tonight he chose to focus on electric keyboards and was seated behind a modern generation Hammond organ and a Nord Lead 3 synth, his decision to deploy these due to the unavailability of an acoustic piano at The Hive.

Thus tonight’s performance sounded substantially different to the album, the presence of the electric keyboards alongside Law’s electric guitar helping to give the music something of a fusion feel. It was a sound that was well suited to Rawicz’s busy, sometimes angular writing style. She is a synaesthete, experiencing music as colours, something that informs her writing process as well as helping to give the new album its title, “Chroma”, being the Greek for ‘colour’ or ‘paint’.

Tonight’s performance commenced with a segue of two compositions from the new album. The lengthy “Rangwali” commenced with the electric bass percolations of Chaplin, these acting as the foundation for the unison melody lines of Rawicz and Law, with Neame’s keyboards functioning at this stage as a textural device. The paths of Rawicz and Law subsequently diverged as both delivered powerful and fluent individual solos. The recorded version features Churchill’s worded vocals and the leader doubling on flute and bass clarinet.

It does have to be noted that at this stage of the performance Law’s guitar was overly dominant and often threatened to overpower the leader. A little judicious adjustment by both the musicians and the sound engineer helped to ensure that the problem was resolved and the sound continued to improve throughout the evening, with Rawicz achieving parity with the guitar. However Neame’s keyboards were a little too low in the mix throughout.

“Rangwali” was segued with “Xanadu”, a tune that appears in three different versions on the “Chroma” album. The recorded versions are all fairly short and serve as interludes between some of the lengthier compositions. I think the segment we hear was “Xanadu III”, with Rawicz and Law playing unison melody lines above Sirkis’ sturdy back beat.

The as yet unrecorded “Rebecca” was less frenetic and was introduced by a passage of unaccompanied guitar as Chaplin moved to acoustic bass while Sirkis variously deployed a combination of mallets, brushes and sticks. The style may have been gentler but there was still an angular quality to the writing, with Law and Neame also adding a variety of electronic effects. Chaplin was the first featured soloist with an admirably dexterous excursion on double bass. Rawicz followed on tenor, then Neame on Hammond. I’m more used to hearing Neame on acoustic piano so this rare outing on electric keyboards represented an intriguing prospect.

From Rawicz’s début “Mantra” was introduced here by Law, before he doubled up with Rawicz on the theme. As with the “Chroma” material tonight’s performance differed significantly to the recorded version, on which Rawicz plays soprano. She was no less impressive tonight as she soloed on tenor, her powerful and fluent playing propelled by Sirkis’ dynamic drumming, aided and abetted by Chaplin on five string electric bass. Neame was again allowed the opportunity to express himself on keyboards and the performance was crowned by an energetic drum feature from the impressive Sirkis.

We had only heard three pieces (or four if you count the opening segue as two separate items) but fifty minutes had passed by in what seemed like the blink of an eye, so absorbing was this intense, frequently complex music. The members of the audience went into the break feeling somewhat exhausted, but ultimately exhilarated.

The second set commenced with “Falu”, actually the closing track on the new album. This featured more robust unison riffing and muscular instrumental interplay from Rawicz and Law. At times their chemistry on tenor and guitar reminded me of that of Julian Siegel and Phil Robson in Partisans, something also encouraged by Rawicz’s sophisticated writing style. There was even a hint of King Crimson too, although that’s far less apparent on the recordings. Feverish solos came from the leader on tenor and Neame on Hammond.

Also from the new album “Veridian” was introduced by a passage of unaccompanied tenor saxophone (it’s piano on the recording) with Rawicz eventually joined by guitar, double bass, and finally brushed drums. The recorded version also incorporates Churchill’s wordless vocals and features Chaplin as a soloist, but tonight the honours went to Law on guitar and Rawicz on tenor.

Neame sat out for “Middle Ground”, a ballad from the new album that has also been issued as a single. Written to commemorate Rawicz’s father’s birthday this piece proved to be a favourite with many audience members. Solos came from Chaplin on melodic double bass and Rawicz on tenor, both sympathetically supported by Sirkis, deploying a combination of brushes and mallets. During the course of Law’s guitar solo the music took on something of an anthemic quality, with Sirkis switching to sticks as the momentum of the music gradually increased. The recorded version features a delightful wordless vocal from Churchill.

Another single was to follow, “Voodoo”, the opening track from the “Incantation” album. Its complex, staccato theme incorporated more dynamic unison playing from Rawicz and Law and provided the basis for extended solos from Rawicz on tenor, Neame in full ‘elephant9’ mode on Hammond, Law on guitar, and finally Sirkis with a volcanic drum feature.

As the band acknowledged the cheers of a rapturous audience SJN chair Mike Wright took to the stage to explain that he had been blown away by this “world class band” at the Yard venue in Manchester in 2022 and just knew that he had to book them for The Hive. Everybody was very grateful that he did.

The deserved encore was “Phlox”, the opening track from the new album. With Chaplin back on electric bass this featured some chunky but complex riffing with solos coming from Rawicz on tenor and Neame on keyboards, plus a final drum feature from Sirkis. Again, tonight’s performance was substantially different to the recorded version, which features Sirkis’ konnakol vocal and Rawicz doubling on bass clarinet.

The eventual official release of “Chroma” will be a major event in British jazz, but tonight a lot of lucky people took the opportunity of taking a pre-release copy home with them. Both “Incantation” and “Chroma” make for hugely satisfying home listening, with Rawicz impressing as both a musician and composer. She has the potential to become one of the UK’s most significant and successful jazz musicians. Readers are recommended to check out both “Incantation” and “Chroma”, each features a wealth of good music and both albums represent essential listening.

Despite the occasional sound issues this was an exceptional gig from five hugely talented musicians.

My thanks to all the band members for speaking with me afterwards and to Ant Law for providing me with a review copy the album “Same Moon In The Same World”, credited to himself and saxophonist Alex Hitchcock. Recorded during the pandemic this album features the British duo in a series of online collaborations with an international cast of leading musicians mainly based in the US, namely vibraphonist Joel Ross, pianist Shai Maestro,  bassists Linda May Han Oh and Ben Williams and drummers Eric Harland, Jeff Ballard, Kendrick Scott and Sun-Mi Hong. Their fellow Brit, Tim Garland, appears too, specialising on bass clarinet. This was actually released in 2022 and I intend to take a look at this in the not too distant future.


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