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Zoe Rahman: Jazz

30 April 2013 Rachel Ridge

Fresh from winning a MOBO award and set to play her hauntingly beautiful new album Kindred Spirits at the Canada Water culture space this May, It’s fair to say Zoe Rahman is singlehandedly taking over the world of Modern Jazz! London Calling caught up with her to find out the story behind the sound…

London Calling: Where did you learn Jazz Piano and what drew you to the instrument in the first place?

Zoe Rahman: I started off playing classical piano when I was about four years old. We had a piano that my parents had bought for just £10 and to their surprise my older sister started to play - my other two siblings and I just followed in her footsteps apparently! My brother Idris and I got into listening to jazz when we were teenagers and we tried to work out how to play what we heard. I had the occasional jazz piano lesson along the way with various teachers and was always trying to find opportunities to gig with other musicians. I eventually went to study in America at Berklee in Boston and had a fantastic teacher there called Joanne Brackeen.

LC: Is the blending of different elements, whether it is cultural roots, or styles of music, an important aspect to your creative process?

ZR: I love listening to all kinds of music and it all influences the way I write music, how I play and the type of tunes I choose to play with my band. I'm a bit magpie-like in that I just take elements of anything I hear and try to make it my own.

LC: Does your mixed cultural heritage of English, Irish and Bengali play a big role in how you craft your broad ranging jazz?

ZR: I grew up in Chichester in West Sussex so I had a very English upbringing - I like to listen to music from Bengal as it connects me to my father's family in Dhaka and is a part of who I am. My grandmother on my mother's side was Irish so when we toured Ireland in 2011 I wanted to play some music that reflected that part of my heritage, hence the 'Butlers of Glen Avenue' track on my latest album. I also found that a traditional Irish tune called 'Go Where Glory Waits Thee' was taken by the Bengali musician/poet/artist/Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore and used in one of his stage plays, so there was a musical connection that had already been made between the two countries which I found fascinating.

LC: What can audiences expect from your upcoming show at Canada Water Culture Space?

ZR: I'll be playing music from my "Kindred Spirits" CD alongside some new material that I'm working on for a future release. We always play a couple of tunes that jazz lovers will recognise (for instance, tunes by Ellington or Monk) and as a band we always have fun on stage and we like to take our audience along with that spirit of joy through the music.

LC: Will your brother Idris be accompanying you on clarinet for the show?

ZR: Idris won't be with us for this one but we'll have the wonderful Rowland Sutherland on flute, Alec Dankworth on bass and Cheryl Alleyne on drums who is joining us for the first time. I've worked with her before with other bands (most recently with Courtney Pine) so it'll be great to play my music with her - she's a fantastic musician.

LC: How was it winning the MOBO in the Jazz category for Kindred Spirits?

ZR: It was great to win the MOBO - my award was presented after one to JLS (bit of a contrast!) so in terms of getting exposure for jazz it was fantastic! It did feel good that jazz was being given some recognition as it's sometimes hard for jazz to get the exposure it deserves.

LC: As well as this, you’ve been nominated for a Mercury music prize in the past, are you interested in bringing contemporary jazz to wider audiences?

ZR: There's no doubt that the Mercury Prize and the MOBOS do help bring awareness of jazz to a wider audience and that can only be a good thing. I'm quite often told by people that they thought they didn't like jazz but they like my music! Jazz is such a broad musical genre so there's something in it for everyone, it's just hard sometimes for people to know where to look. Jazz doesn't get as much airplay as it perhaps could so although award ceremonies as such aren't what jazz is about, the exposure that comes from them does help get the music out to people who wouldn't otherwise be aware of it.

LC: You have recently collaborated with musicians Courtney Pine and Clark Tracey’s New Quintet Soothsayers. Can you talk about your favourite collaborations and how they shape your records?

ZR: I've worked with a lot of different musicians, which I love doing. It all feeds into how I play my own music. I'm about to go to Sweden to play with some musicians I collaborated with on an album recently which has been a lovely project to work on. One of my favourite collaborations was when I was invited, at the very last minute, to Barbados about ten years ago to perform with a steel pan player there called David 'Ziggy' Walcott. Apart from the fact we played for an audience outdoors by a swimming pool (!) the sound of piano and steel pan was a great combination. Similarly, I worked recently with a sitar player, Debipriya, and again, the combination of the two instruments was inspiring. For my own albums, collaborating with my brother and the Bengali singers Arnob and Gaurob for my "Where Rivers Meet" album was great, and on that record we asked my Dad to recite some lyrics on one of the tracks which was fantastic.

LC: After this show what’s next for you?

ZR: I'm off to America next month (Rochester Jazz Festival, NY). After that I've got quite a few festival gigs throughout the UK coming up over the summer which I'm looking forward to then hopefully will have time to concentrate on my next album.

Zoe Rahman Jazz will be performed at the Canada Water Culture Space on the 11 May. For more information and to book tickets please click here. 

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