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Zoe Rahman Quartet

Zoe Rahman Quartet, Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton, 05/10/2013.


by Ian Mann

October 08, 2013


A triumphant first night for the Jazz at the Arena programme with a typically sparkling performance from the Zoe Rahman Quartet.

Zoe Rahman Quartet, The Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton, 05/10/2013.

Photograph of Zoe Rahman sourced from the Arena Theatre website;

Regular visitors to the Jazzmann web pages will be aware of my fondness for The Edge Arts Centre in Much Wenlock, Shropshire. Thanks to the visionary programming of Artistic Director Alison Vermee this semi rural location hosted a veritable panoply of British and international jazz talent including ECM recording stars of the calibre of Ralph Towner, Bobo Stenson and Tomasz Stanko. Unfortunately all good things come to an end and after several glorious years at The Edge Alison was forced to move on and took up a post as Development Officer at the Arena Theatre in Wolverhampton.

It was always Alison’s intention to establish a jazz programme at the Arena which had hitherto been a theatre in the strictest sense with a concentration on plays and other stage productions. It’s taken a while but under the umbrella of the new Jazz@Wolverhampton group the Arena jazz programme is now up and running and I’m pleased to report that tonight’s inaugural concert attracted a sold out audience at this intimate 150 seat venue. 

It was appropriate that this first event should feature pianist and composer Zoe Rahman who has been a keen supporter of this new project and is the first patron of the Jazz at the Arena programme.
Another famous jazz name who has offered his support is the great bassist and composer Dave Holland, Wolverhampton born but based in the USA since the late 1960’s when he was catapulted to jazz stardom by the invitation to join the Miles Davis band. Holland has since carved out an acclaimed solo career and has recorded prolifically, notably for ECM and his own Dare2 Productions. However for all Holland’s success he has never forgotten his Midlands roots and has become the patron of the Arena Theatre itself . He is also a respected jazz educator and and is involved with the jazz degree course at Birmingham Conservatoire.

In the main the first Jazz at the Arena programme features tried and trusted names who have appeared previously at The Edge and have all been well received there. Zoe will be followed by The Impossible Gentlemen and Gilad Atzmon with the Orient House Ensemble, two more acts almost guaranteed to deliver capacity audiences. After Christmas the Tord Gustavsen Ensemble, the Kyle Eastwood Band and Phronesis, all previous Edge favourites, are scheduled to appear with bassist Gary Crosby’s Groundation group representing something of a “wild card” option. If the quality of the opening night is anything to go by the jazz lovers of Wolverhampton and beyond should be in for a memorable first season.

Tonight was my first visit to the Arena Theatre and my first impressions are that it’s perfect for jazz, an intimate performance space with banked seating and good acoustics. The presence of Peter Maxwell Dixon at the sound desk, so often the engineer at The Edge and other Midlands venues,  represented a welcome bonus and ensured a professional, good quality sound mix. Incidentally, congratulations to Peter on the recent birth of his young daughter, Peggy.

Thanks to Alison’s generosity I had the perfect seat to witness a typically sparkling performance from Zoe Rahman who was accompanied by her regular quartet with her brother Idris Rahman on tenor sax and clarinet, Alec Dankworth on double bass and the irrepressible Gene Calderazzo at the drums. Some of Zoe’s summer festival gigs have also included the flautist Rowland Sutherland and initially I was slightly disappointed that he wasn’t appearing as well but the quality of the playing from the quartet quickly dispelled any lingering qualms (what a lot of q’s!).

Much of the music in tonight’s set was drawn from Zoe’s 2012 album “Kindred Spirits”, an excellent album that helped her secure the 2012 MOBO Award for best Jazz Act. This career boosting acknowledgement followed a similarly beneficial Mercury Music Prize nomination back in 2006 for the album “Melting Pot”.

Immaculately attired as ever Zoe began with the core trio of Dankworth and Calderazzo and commenced proceedings with “Down To Earth” the opening track of the “Kindred Spirits” album.  Zoe’s solo piano intro brought a new blues inflection to her music and I think it’s fair to say that with Dankworth in the bass slot (previous incumbents have included Oli Hayhurst and Davide Mantovani, both excellent) the quartet grooves as never before. With Dankworth in the anchor role the stage is set for the fiery but fun musical exchanges between Zoe and Calderazzo. The pair always set up facing each other and they never fail to spark one another’s creativity. It’s been a pleasure to watch Calderazzo’s development as a drummer and musician over the last fifteen years or so since I first saw him with the mighty Partisans. Calderazzo has spoken of how much fun he has playing with this band and this was much in evidence here as Calderazzo’s busy drumming style complemented Zoe’s rumbling left hand figures, mercurial right hand runs and octave spanning block chords. Stunning stuff and a quite terrific start.

Welcoming her brother to the stage Zoe explained that she and Idris were born in Chichester to an English mother and Bengali father. The pianist first took a brief look at her Bengali musical roots on “Melting Pot” before successfully exploring this side of her heritage further on “Where Rivers Meet” (2008), jointly credited to Zoe and Idris Rahman. “Kindred Spirits” continues this process but in a more obvious “jazz” manner and as such is her most diverse and mature work to date. It also examines the siblings’ Irish connection, an additional ancestral strand derived through their grandmother, Nellie Grogan.

With Idris on clarinet the quartet explored the Rahman’s Bengali and Irish roots on a sequence of tunes from the “Kindred Spirits” album, two pieces by the revered Bengali playwright and songwriter Rabindranath Tagore, “Forbiddance” and “My Heart Dances Like a Peacock, It Dances” plus the traditional Irish tune “Butlers Of Glen Avenue”.
“Forbiddance” was a beautiful duet for clarinet and piano played by the siblings with warmth and feeling and no little technical skill. “My Heart Dances…” was a suitably exuberant celebration of Bengali melodies and rhythms with dazzling solos from Idris and Zoe with Calderazzo providing sparky commentary from the drums. Calderazzo’s concluding drum solo provided the bridge into “Butlers…”, obviously Irish in origin and possessed of all the energy and vivacity one associates with Irish music. Idris and Zoe were again in terrific form on this tribute to a much loved family member that also managed to enthuse the entire Wolverhampton audience.

The Rahman family history continued with “Maya”, Zoe’s lovely dedication to her young niece which began with a solo piano introduction before moving on to feature Idris on suitably tender tenor with Calderazzo providing subtle brush and mallet accompaniment. Dankworth’s bass solo was melodic, expressive and hugely dexterous with Zoe’s piano subsequently leading the way into an Abdullah Ibrahim composition as the quartet delivered another segue. Here Idris’ tenor sound was more rugged and muscular, a demonstration of his versatility as he really “dug in” on his solo. Zoe’s own solo was highly percussive with ominous left hand rumbles as she once again enjoyed sparring with Calderazzo. Zoe has recorded several Ibrahim tunes but in the heat of the moment she couldn’t recall the title of this one! I suspect it may have been “Cherry”, a piece that this same quartet played at their last appearance at The Edge in January 2012.

As Zoe explained to us “jazz is all about taking chances” and in the company of the trio she performed a new piece, as yet untitled, making it a world premi?re for Wolverhampton. This was a groove based piece based around a central piano motif and offered further evidence of the heft Dankworth has brought to the group. Interestingly Zoe and Dankworth were both reading, but not Calderazzo who seems to be a largely instinctive player. This was as close as I’ve ever heard Zoe get to E.S.T. and the piece was crowned by a drum feature for Calderazzo.

The first half concluded with Idris returning to play tenor on Duke Eliington’s “Blue Pepper”, a piece which originally appeared on the composer’s “Far East Suite”. Zoe’s solo piano intro was followed by a typically engaging piano/drum dialogue, this in turn leading to Idris’ tenor solo complete with r’n'b styled hooting, honking and fluttering. Taking her cue from her brother Zoe closed out out the first set with a rollicking piano solo that left the audience on a high. Great stuff.

Zoe Rahman is a musician with a growing international reputation. She has released five albums as a leader or co-leader but recent collaborations have included a duo recording with the veteran Czech born, US based bassist George Mraz and an album under the name Moz Trio made with Swedish drummer and composer Martina Almgren and her husband Owe Almgren (electric bass). It’s a rarity for me to actually buy a CD these days but I did purchase a copy of the Moz Trio album “Sparkling Water, Please”. Engineered by Ake Linton who famously mixed the live sound for E.S.T. it’s an impressive album that includes compositions from all three musicians. Among Zoe’s contributions is “Red Squirrel” which opened the second set in trio format here. Zoe’s intro saw her reaching under the lid of the piano to pluck,strum and dampen the strings, techniques I don’t recall seeing her use before although “Outside In” from “Kindred Spirits” makes extensive use of these methods. As for “Red Squirrel” itself the tune itself possesses all the perkiness of the titular creature with Zoe’s piano grooves augmented by Calderazzo’s dynamic drumming.

From the same recording came “Crystal Clear”, a piece inspired by the serenity and tranquillity of the Swedish Lakeland with a further piano/clarinet dialogue, this time with gently brushed drum accompaniment. Zoe’s solo revealed a more lyrical side to her playing and represented something of a pause for breath before the quartet tackled “Conversations With Nellie”, a further exploration of the Rahman’s Celtic heritage with the siblings trading effervescent solos above the locked in grooves of Dankworth and Calderazzo.   

Zoe Rahman is a musician who talks readily to her audience and exudes a slightly breathless charm. Tonight she seemed caught up in the excitement of the event and her amiable ramblings didn’t always include actual tune announcements. Such was the case with the penultimate item, a segue that began with a further exploration of the Bengali side of her music with Idris soloing on clarinet above the patter of Calderazzo’s hand drums. I’m fairly certain that this was the Tagore song “Imagination” which appears on “Kindred Spirits”, the recorded version featuring Idris playing bass clarinet
As Idris’ playing became more impassioned Calderazzo picked up his sticks as the music metamorphosed into what I concluded to be “Ha Gente Aqui” written by the Portuguese pianist Mario Laginha and sourced from Zoe’s 2007 live album. Idris was at his most mercurial on clarinet and following Zoe’s solo there was a lengthy feature for the excellent Dankworth which drew a round of spontaneous applause from the audience. This wasn’t the sort of gig where the crowd clapped after every solo but I deduced that this wasn’t due to any lack of appreciation but because they were totally absorbed in the music. The reception that followed another bout of soaring clarinet above driving rhythms suggested total audience involvement and total audience enjoyment. 

Also from the live album but previously aired on “Melting Pot” the evening ended with the trio playing the celebratory “Last Note” , the piece chock full of strong grooves and strong solos and topped and tailed by features from the frequently explosive Calderazzo.

Although Zoe and her colleagues received an enthusiastic ovation I was surprised that they weren’t invited back for an encore, preferably with Idris back in tow. The house lights seemed to come up rather abruptly but nobody seemed to mind too much and everybody seemed happy with what they’d heard. All in all this was a triumphant first night for the Jazz at the Arena programme and Alison and her team deserve our congratulations. With a very strong programme scheduled for the rest of 2013 and the spring of 2014 Jazz at the Arena deserves to go from strength to strength and will hopefully become a much loved fixture on the Midlands jazz scene.

Forthcoming jazz events at the Arena Theatre are;

Tomorrow’s Warriors present Nerija + Ezra Saturday 12 October 2013 at 5pm (workshop at 2.30pm) A double bill of fresh new talent brought to you by Tomorrow’s Warriors

The Impossible Gentlemen Sunday 20 October 2013 at 8pm Gwilym Simcock piano Mike Walker guitar Steve Rodby bass Adam Nussbaum drums  

Gilad Atzmon and the Orient House Ensemble Saturday 7 December 2013 at 8pm Gilad Atzmon alto & soprano saxophone, clarinet, accordion - Frank Harrison piano, keyboards - Yaron Stavi double bass - Eddie Hick drums

Gary Crosby’s Groundation Friday 14 February 2014 at 8pm Gary Crosby double bass Nathaniel Facey alto sax Shirley Tetteh guitar Moses Boyd drums

Tord Gustavsen Ensemble Sunday 16 March 2014 at 8pm Tord Gustavsen piano Tore Brunborg saxes Mats Eilertsen double bass Jarle Vespestad drums

Kyle Eastwood Band Saturday 26 April 2014 at 8pm Full line-up to be confirmed

Phronesis Saturday 31 May 2014 at 8pm Jasper H?iby bass Ivo Neame piano Anton Eger drums

Arena Theatre, Wulfruna Street, Wolverhampton, West Midlands, WV1 1SE

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