by Ian Mann
January 31, 2012
Ian Mann enjoys a sparkling live performance from pianist and composer Zoe Rahman and takes a look at her superb new album "Kindred Spirits".
Zoe Rahman Quartet, The Edge Arts Centre, Much Wenlock, Shropshire, 28/01/2012.
Tonight’s concert represented a welcome return to The Edge for pianist and composer Zoe Rahman who had last performed here with her trio featuring drummer Gene Calderazzo and bassist Oli Hayhurst back in October 2009. No stranger to the venue she’d also appeared here earlier as a member of saxophonist/flautist Finn Peters’ group.
This evening’s event was an official sell out, an indication of Rahman’s enduring popularity. Calderazzo was again present behind the drums but with Hayhurst having left the group bass duties were undertaken by Alec Dankworth, a supremely adaptable and versatile player and one more than capable of dealing with Rahman’s often complex music. This core trio was augmented by Rahman’s brother Idris on clarinet and tenor saxophone.
The quartet were playing music from Zoe’s new album “Kindred Spirits”, released on January 30th 2012 on Zoe’s own Manushi Records imprint. With a trio line up of Zoe, Calderazzo and Hayhurst and with guest appearances from Idris on clarinet and bass clarinet plus Courtney Pine on alto flute it’s arguably Zoe’s most complete CD to date, tying together the strands of her diverse musical heritage in a coherent, highly listenable package. Both the album and tonight’s concert represent a musical journey with Zoe exploring her jazz, Bengali and Irish musical ancestry.
Born in Chichester to an English mother and Bengali father Zoe grew up playing Western classical music before discovering jazz and studying under the tutelage of Joanne Brackeen at the famous Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. Returning to England her début “The Cynic” was released in 2001 and she began to build up a following on the live jazz circuit. Her career received a considerable boost when her second album, 2006’s “Melting Pot” was nominated for that year’s Mercury Music Prize. “Melting Pot” also saw her dipping a tentative toe into the music of her Bengali heritage on the closing track, Hemant Mukherjee’s “Muchhe Jaoa Dinguli”, later to become a staple of her live appearances. This was something more fully explored on 2008’s hugely successful “Where Rivers Meet” (reviewed elsewhere on this site), jointly credited to Zoe and Idris Rahman.
Although “Kindred Spirits” marks something of a return to Zoe’s jazz roots the Bengali side of her heritage is not forgotten and the album includes arrangements of three pieces by the late poet and songwriter Rabindranath Tagore, still a greatly admired figure in his Bengali homeland. The album also includes a traditional Irish tune in acknowledgement of Zoe and Idris’ maternal grandmother, the Irish born Nellie Grogan. This evening’s show also proved to be something of a musical history lesson as Zoe compared the links between Bengali and Irish music and explained that Tagore and W.B. Yeats were close associates, news to me and most of the other audience members I suspect.
The trio of Zoe, Calderazzo and Dankworth began with “Down To Earth”, the rousing opening track of the new album with Zoe’s pianistic virtuosity augmented by the first of several articulate and resonant Dankworth bass solos and some dynamic drumming from Calderazzo with Zoe later citing Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham as yet another influence on her group’s music. That Calderazzo could produce playing of such fire and precision was something of a miracle. The drummer limped on stage still suffering from the effects of a broken ankle incurred just before Christmas. “It was Christmas Eve and I was just goofing around with my kids when something just went. It hurt like hell.” he explained to me later. Gene had to cancel a few gigs, not a good thing in the precarious financial world of contemporary jazz, but had his cast removed just before this current tour. He’s currently playing through the pain barrier but to these ears sounded just as good as ever.
There were more fireworks from Calderazzo in an explosive drum feature that formed part of a hard driving version of Stevie Wonder’s “Contusion”,from “Songs In The Key Life”, and the tune that also closes Zoe’s new CD. The pianist gave a bravura performance on a piece that was also included in the set list back in 2009 and which had tonight been specifically requested by Edge promoter and organiser Alison Vermee.
Zoe welcomed Idris Rahman to the stage to play clarinet on “Maya”, also sourced from the new album and a pretty and moving tribute to their recently born niece. Idris also appeared on clarinet for a sequence of tunes from the new album that included two Tagore pieces, “Forbiddance” and “My Heart Dances, Like A Peacock, It Dances” plus the traditional Irish tune “Butlers Of Glen Avenue”. Continuing the lyrical mood established with “Maya”, “Forbiddance” was a lovely clarinet/piano duet, beautifully played by the brother and sister combination before things took off joyously with “Peacock” with both siblings soloing exuberantly. Calderazzo’s series of drum breaks and subsequent solo provided the bridge into “Butlers”, a piece delivered with all the energy and exuberance associated with Irish music. I remember observing in my review of the 2009 trio performance just how much Zoe and her colleagues seemed to enjoy making music together. There’s a real spark there, particularly between Zoe and the irrepressible Claderazzo. “I like this band, it’s fun” he enthused spontaneously in our now customary post gig chat.
Idris sat out as the trio played a superbly interactive version of “Friday 13th” written by Zoe’s former mentor Joanne Brackeen. This is a piece that has been in the trio’s repertoire for some time and was also played here in 2009. The tune appears on the 2007 album “Zoe Rahman Trio Live”, a spirited collection of tunes by Zoe’s favourite jazz composers, among them Abdullah Ibrahim, recorded live at the Pizza Express Jazz Club in London with Idris guesting. Tonight Brackeen’s catchy, hooky tune provided the jumping off point for some sparky improvisation as Dankworth weighed in with a brilliantly dexterous solo and Calderazzo indulged in a little of his trademark showmanship. Great fun, just as the man said.
The first set concluded with a quartet version of Duke Ellington’s “Blue Pepper” with Idris on tenor saxophone, his gruff playing bringing a Middle Easter/North African inflection to Ellington’s blues. A rapt Edge audience gave them a tremendous half time ovation.
Set two began with the trio exploring the gospel/township sounds of Abdullah Ibrahim’s “Cherry”. Zoe seems to have a particular affinity for Ibrahim’s tunes, as alluded to previously, both “The Stride” and “Tuang Guru” appear on her live album.
Dankworth introduced Zoe’s new original “Red Squirrel” at the bass, adding some flamenco style strumming to his armoury, a reflection perhaps of his own “Spanish Accents” band. The subsequent dialogue between bass and piano was out of the top drawer on yet another winning original composition.
Idris rejoined the trio for a couple of Tagore songs from the “Where Rivers Meet” album, his sinuous clarinet again dovetailing beautifully with the crystalline quality of his sister’s piano playing. Zoe has developed a highly personal style on her instrument combining a classicist’s precision and technique with a jazzer’s sense of fun and adventure. It’s a winning combination that has won her many admirers and whilst she acknowledges the influence of musicians such as Ibrahim and Brackeen she doesn’t sound like anybody other than herself.
A radically re-harmonised version of “These Foolish Things” offered another opportunity for some “serious fun” and this was followed by the grooving trio item “Fly In The Ointment” from the new album. This was the trio at their most exuberant with another brilliant Dankworth bass solo and more ebullient piano/drum dialogue with Calderazzo’s wildly rolling eyes all part of the performance.
A final Tagore piece, “Imagination” closed the performance. Also drawn from “Kindred Spirits” featured Dankworth making effective and atmospheric use of the bow and Idris’ best clarinet solo of the night (he actually uses the larger, deeper bass clarinet on the recorded version) above Zoe’s dense left hand chording. Her own solo was delivered with characteristic panache and when the quartet left the stage to thunderous applause it was clear that an encore was inevitable. This proved to be the new album’s “Conversation with Nellie” with Idris’ clarinet a more than adequate substitute for Courtney Pine’s alto flute.
The “Kindred Spirits” album is highly recommended and the quartet will continue to tour the UK during February and March 2012 with new member Davide Mantovani taking over the bass role from Dankworth.
Zoe and her colleagues got The Edge’s 2012 jazz programme off to a great start. Alison Vermee also informed us of the progress that had been made regarding the fund raising appeal aimed at buying a grand piano for the piano (at present they hire the splendid Kawai used by Zoe this evening). It is intended that a new Yamaha C7 will be purchased from Stuart Jones Pianos at a cost of £25,000. Around a fifth of that has been raised so far. If you’d like to help with the appeal please contact Alison Vermee at http://www.edgeartscentre.co.uk
Forthcoming tour dates for the Zoe Rahman Quartet are as follows;
2 Feb Leeds Seven Arts 0113 2626777. £15/12 concs. Doors 8pm, music 8.30-11pm
3 Feb Sheffield, Sheffield Jazz, Millennium Hall
4 Feb Liverpool The Capstone Theatre 0151 7093789. £12.50. 7.30pm.
6 Feb London Pizza Express 0845 6 027 017. £15, 8.30pm
7 Feb London Pizza Express 0845 6 027 017. £15, 8.30pm
3 Mar Bradford on Avon Wiltshire Music Centre 01225 860100. 8pm. £16 (concs available)
6 Mar St. Ives, St Ives Jazz, Western Hotel 01736 796082. 8pm, £12/£6 members.
7 Mar Barnstaple The Queen’s Theatre 01271 324242. 8pm. £10.
10 Mar Hampshire Forest Arts Theatre 01425 612393
15 Mar Warwick Arts Centre details tbc
25 Mar Gateshead The Sage 0191 443 4661
Further information at http://www.zoerahman.com