by Ian Mann
December 11, 2015
A triumphant return to the Arena for Zoe Rahman.
Zoe Rahman Trio, Arena Theatre, Wolverhampton, 03/12/2015.
Tonight’s performance represented a welcome return to Wolverhampton for pianist, composer and bandleader Zoe Rahman. Rahman last played here in 2013, the inaugural event in the now well established ‘Jazz at the Arena’ programme founded by Alison Vermee.
It was appropriate that Rahman should have played the first jazz gig to be seen at the Arena, a supporter of the programme from the outset she continues to be a patron of the venture, a post shared by the Wolverhampton born bassist, composer and bandleader Dave Holland.
In 2013 Rahman appeared with a quartet featuring her brother Idris on reeds alongside Alec Dankworth on double bass and Gene Calderazzo at the drums. Tonight she appeared with a trio, still her most regular instrumental configuration, with long term collaborator Calderazzo behind the kit and with Mark Lewandowski replacing the advertised Dankworth.
Rahman was born in Chichester to an English mother and a Bengali father and initially studied classical piano at the Royal Academy of Music and at Oxford University before turning to jazz. She subsequently attended the famous Berklee College of Music in Boston where she was tutored by jazz pianist Joanne Brackeen.
Rahman released her début album, “The Cynic”, in 2001 but it was her second recording “Melting Pot” that really put her on the map, particularly when it was nominated for the 2006 Mercury Music Prize. Rahman has since become one of the most popular and consistent performers on the UK jazz scene releasing a series of acclaimed solo albums and collaborating with a broad range of other musicians, among them multi reeds player Courtney Pine, Czech born bassist George Mraz and ex Specials keyboard player Jerry Dammers as part of the latter’s Spatial AKA Orchestra.
Rahman’s 2008 album “Where Rivers Meet”, a project co-led by her brother Idris Rahman, explored the siblings’ Bengali heritage but filtered it through a jazz prism. It was a strand that was further explored on “Kindred Spirits”, a more obviously ‘jazz’ recording that helped her to win the 2012 MOBO award for best jazz act. Rahman’s mix of jazz, classical and Bengali influences and more has helped to make her one of the most distinctive jazz pianists in the UK. One of my favourite recordings of hers is a limited edition live album documenting a performance at London’s Pizza Express Jazz Club in 2007 which features the trio, plus Idris guesting on clarinet, stretching out on some of Rahman’s favourite tunes by a variety of outside composers. In many respects it’s still the best and most typical souvenir of her concert performances. The qualities of fun, skill and daring that are the hallmarks of every Zoe Rahman performance shine through throughout this recording.
Since appearing at the Arena in 2013 Rahman has taken time out for the birth of her first child, a son now aged two. She has also been working extensively in a duo with Courtney Pine, the pair graced the 2015 Brecon Jazz Festival playing an excellent show at Brecon Cathedral.
Tonight was the first trio outing for quite some time and the performance attracted an almost full house at the 150 seat Arena. Some fans had seen Calderazzo, a musician with something of a cult following of his own, give a ‘man of the match’ performance with the band Partisans the previous month and this may also have helped to swell the numbers. In any event the audience was on the trio’s side from the off and this helped to result in some joyful and audacious music making with Rahman clearly relishing the opportunity of playing in the trio format once again. She and Calderazzo have been playing together for over decade and their well established rapport was obvious from the start, their musical conversations always bright, vigorous and vivacious. I’m not sure how often these two have played with Lewandowski but he seemed to fit right in, often in an anchoring role but finding more to say on his own account as the evening progressed.
The performance began with “Down To Earth” from the “Kindred Spirits” album, a rousing opener with a strong melody and an equally sturdy rhythmic base featuring Rahman’s muscular left hand figures allied to Calderazzo’s crisp, powerful drumming. But there was subtlety too, particularly in the classically honed lightness of touch that was a feature of Rahman’s right hand soloing.
From the same album Rabindranath Tagore’s “My Heart It Dances Like A Peacock, It Dances” explored elements of Rahman’s Bengali heritage, her piano part incorporating Indian scales and with Calderazzo’s drumming, often with bare hands, replicating the rhythms of the tabla. Rahman’s research into her family history also detected an Irish strand on her mother’s side. It’s an aspect of her ancestry that she has also been keen to include in her music and Lewandowski’s bass solo provided a bridge into a brief but joyous rendition of the traditional Irish tune “Butlers of Glen Avenue” with Rahman’s piano melody leading the way. The tune also appears on the “Kindred Spirits” album.
“Fast Asleep” was a new, as yet unrecorded, tune written for Rahman’s young son. Like the opening two pieces it was introduced by a passage of solo piano but this time the bass and drums were more subdued on a tune that was essentially a lullaby. Rahman’s flowing solo was complemented by a correspondingly melodic bass solo from Lewandowski while Calderazzo deployed brushes or mallets throughout and turned in some delightful filigree cymbal work.
Lewandowski’s bass introduced the rousing “On The Road”, another new tune as far as I’m aware. Next up was a slightly older piece that had been premièred at Wolverhampton two years ago but still remained untitled! Tonight’s arrangement embraced classically inspired piano flourishes, a more abstract central section and a dense, hard driving finale that reminded me of E.S.T. when it was first aired a couple of years ago.
The first set concluded with a tune by the late pianist and composer Cedar Walton arranged by trumpeter Roy Hargrove. Unfortunately Zoe didn’t tell us what it was actually called. The taut, riffy theme provided the jumping off point for solos from Lewandowski and Rahman, the latter a torrential outpouring of ideas that clearly thrilled the audience. Rahman informed us that she will be releasing a new album in 2016, it seems likely that this piece may well be on it.
Set two commenced with the joyous Township sounds of an Abdullah Ibrahim tune, although, again Zoe didn’t identify which one it was, possibly “Cherry” or “The Stride” both of which feature in her repertoire.
An Ahmad Jamal arrangement of the jazz standard “Poinciana” featured some terrific interplay between Rahman and Calderazzo. The pair always set up facing each other and have been sparking one another’s creativity for over a decade. There were some dazzling exchanges, the technical proficiency leavened by flashes of ‘musician’s humour’.
Rahman’s tune “Red Squirrel” was originally written for the album “Sparkling Water, Please” a 2012 mutual collaboration credited to MOZ Trio and featuring the Swedish musicians Owe Almgren (electric bass) and Martina Almgren (drums). Rahman cited the piece as being one of her favourites among her recent compositions. Tonight’s arrangement emerged out of a free-form introduction to embrace a typically strong melody and groove and with more ebullient piano/drums interplay between Rahman and Calderazzo.
Another new Rahman original, seemingly still untitled, was written in seven and challenged the technical skills of the players. Nonetheless it proved to be an unexpected set highlight with Rahman’s solo piano intro followed by Lewandowski’s bowed bass solo, a seemingly unscripted moment that even seemed to surprise Rahman. She later revealed that the bassist is also an accomplished cellist. Indian scales were again detectable in Rahman’s own solo as Calderazzo tapped out rhythms with his fingers on his snare drum. His drumming style in this trio is very different to the one he deploys with the more rock orientated Partisans and offers further evidence of his continuously developing maturity and versatility.
From “Kindred Spirits” Rahman’s tune “Conversation With Nellie” is another nod in the direction of her Irish grandmother. The recorded version features Courtney Pine on alto flute but the attractive melody sounded just as good in the trio format.
The performance concluded with a radically re-harmonised version of the song “These Foolish Things” with Calderazzo again contributing a further example of his newly developed tabla style of drumming. The standard then segued into the more exuberant original tune “Fly in the Ointment” which allowed the trio to finish with a sparky, energised flourish.
Rahman returned to play a deserved encore, a solo piano piece that she’d intended to perform earlier in the set but which had been subjected to the musical equivalent of ‘photo bombing’ by Calderazzo and Lewandowski - a sense of fun has always been a key component of this trio. This was an adventurous piece that highlighted Rahman’s prodigious technique with the work of her left hand just as important as that of her right and which combined both jazz and classical influences.
This was a triumphant return to the Arena for Zoe Rahman, a highly professional performer who can always be relied upon to deliver and to do so with a smile on her face. She received great support from Calderazzo and Lewandowski, it was the first time I’d seen the latter perform live and I was impressed by the way he slotted into this highly creative trio. It’s always a treat to watch Calderazzo, particularly with this band or with Partisans. His rapport with Rahman is as vital as ever and once more the pair generated the kind of musical fireworks that seem to stem from a mutual respect allied to a healthy sense of competition. This a partnership that looks set to enjoy some serious musical fun for many years to come.
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