Zoe Rahman interview: “I wanted to do music for a large ensemble, just to show my music in a different light”

Kevin Le Gendre
Tuesday, August 15, 2023

With the release of Colour Of Sound, her most expansive album to date, Zoe Rahman tells Kevin Le Gendre about how the music was forged from the whole spectrum of human experience. Photography by Ilze Kitshoff

One of London’s great houses of culture, the Barbican centre is a welcome spot for midweek conversation. It is a calm space. But today the lounge is cordoned off, with staff in a notable bustle for a forthcoming exhibition amid a season of concerts.

Hence the pub around the corner is a quickly improvised 'plan B' for a meeting with Zoe Rahman. As we take the short walk, a few students with saxophone cases come into view, presumably on their way to the nearby Guildhall School Of Music. This is fitting, as education, its whys and wherefores, is of the greatest interest to the pianist.

“Children just don’t have the same opportunities that I had when I was growing up, my school teacher was a piano player, she used to teach recorder, guitar, we were always doing musical shows in just an ordinary primary school,” she says of her upbringing in Bosham, West Sussex. “But these days they don’t have access in the same way, they don’t have free opportunities to play, they don’t have instruments.

“There’s a whole generation that don’t have that knowledge; and it’s something that can really help in many aspects of their lives, both emotionally and academically.”

zoe rahman

Although softly spoken, Rahman is not at all timid when she makes the statement. In any case, there is an important anecdotal rejoinder. The pianist helped her local school in Barnet, North London, to acquire a Yamaha Grand piano during the pandemic, as a means to counter the lack of provision she decries. Furthermore, one of her own pieces ‘Go With The Flow’, is now taught at Grade 8 on the classical piano syllabus.

The subject is all the more pertinent given that Rahman has two children, who, at the ages of 6 and 9, are both musicians. Yet motherhood is both celebration and challenge.

“Well, I don’t get out of bed at midday anymore, that’s for sure!” she chuckles.

“Anyone with children knows it’s all encompassing, which is fantastic… that’s a beautiful thing. But it’s a completely different life pre-children and post-children. In terms of making music, it gives you lots of inspiration… watching them grow, it’s a joyful experience, it feeds into the music. But just in terms of time… when you have to run out and do a gig and you have to organise who’s looking after the children…. especially as my partner’s a musician as well; it’s very difficult if we’re both gigging at the same time. It’s a different mindset. I’ve been playing piano since I was four, so I’m always thinking about music and don’t have to be at the piano. The times when you do get to sit down and play you have to really focus, there’s no time-wasting.”

zoe rahman

Her trademark expanse of hair tied back, Rahman is relaxed and casually elegant in jeans and a burgundy shawl that should offer protection against the nip in the air that has come with the beginning of an unusually cool June. She is as unassuming and friendly as she was some 20 years ago when we first met, just as her debut album The Cynic, an accomplished trio session, landed on a UK jazz scene that enjoyed neither its current media profile, nor the relatively high visibility of several female players.

Since that time Rahman has created an impressive discography that has seen her both build on and move away from the piano-double bass-drums format. Melting Pot and Kindred Spirits charted a growing confidence in the small group setting, but equally impressive were two duo sets, 2013’s Unison, with Czech bass legend George Mraz and 2015’s Song (The Ballad Book), with British multi-reed virtuoso Courtney Pine, solely playing bass clarinet. In both cases, Rahman’s stealthy touch on the keyboard, combining wistful lyricism and punchy rhythmic momentum, came to the fore. She successfully served the material with as much languid understatement as lively flourish.

Also worth mentioning is the less explicitly jazz item in Rahman’s catalogue. Born to a Bengali father and English mother, she nodded to her paternal roots with Where Rivers Meet, a joint project with her saxophonist-clarinetist brother Idris Rahman, which featured reprises of the music of the renowned polymath Rabindranath Tagore among others. The work had a distinct mission statement: “It was a way to explore Bengali music, language and culture that I wasn’t familiar with, growing up in Chichester,” she comments.

Rahman’s new album, Colour Of Sound, does her elders and youngers proud. The music is as personal as anything she has penned to date, with several titles referring to the presence of her children, such as ‘Little Ones’ and ‘Sweet Jasmine’, named for her daughter, while other songs are inspired by subjects such as adversity and community.

zoe rahman

Stylistically, the music reflects Rahman’s position as a contemporary composer-improviser who has developed her own identity by drawing on an array of acoustic vocabularies that carry the spirits of anybody from Alice Coltrane and Geri Allen to McCoy Tyner and Abdullah Ibrahim. Melodically rich and rhythmically intricate, this new Rahman offering is also one of her most ambitious in both instrumentation and textural palette. Several generations of British improvisers, including flautist Rowland Sutherland, her brother Idris, trumpeters Byron Wallen and Alex Ridout and trombonist Rosie Turton, are featured in various line-ups throughout, with the largest being an Octet. Like her many role models, Rahman is creating a sonic canvas for her work that has many different hues. But this outlook is by no means new.

“I had an idea that I wanted to do music for a large ensemble, I wanted to have a larger set-up just to show my music in a different light,” she explains. “It’s always been in my mind, and as a piano player you think orchestrally, because the instrument’s got such a huge range, which you don’t get on most other instruments.

“I love all the musicians you mentioned because they play like an orchestra; the piano is percussive, it’s melodic, you’ve got harmony, you’ve got a full range dynamically. When I am writing I’m not just writing for solo piano or trio; there are always other instruments in my head. Ultimately, I’d love to do a big band. Other musicians have played my music in this context, like youth groups, NYJO recorded one of my tracks.

“But I’m not a horn player,” she hastens to add. “So it’s all experimentation, trying things out, and saying to people, ‘can you play this?’ I’ve worked really closely with my brother Idris all these years, so I have an idea of what he can do, like I also have from working with Courtney Pine on bass clarinet. Then there’s Laura McDonald, an alto sax player, which obviously has a different range. Because of these different musicians that I’ve worked with over the years I have an idea of where things sit.

“I don’t play those instruments, so I do sometimes write things that are slightly awkward,” she says with a wry smile. “For the Colour of Sound album I was just expanding out from the piano, I’d play a chord then find where it sits with these other instruments. They can bend and play in between the notes of the piano, which I can’t do myself, which is why I’m attracted to them. But it is about experimenting, maybe getting things wrong sometimes. There are elements of my music that, although they are not sung, when I hear them played on flute or clarinet, they are kind of like the voice without lyrics.”

Each track on Colour Of Sound highlights the different character of a specific instrument so as to create a detailed spectrum that does justice to the vivid character of Rahman’s writing. While the album can be seen as a work of creative maturity that the artist may not have been able to make happen at an earlier stage of her career, there is also a more practical reason as to why the project has come to fruition now.

Although she has a career spanning two decades that has been marked by substantial critical acclaim as well as institutional accolades, the most prestigious of which is a recent Ivor Novello Impact Award, Rahman has never been signed to a record label, and has had to produce – in every sense of the term – work under her own steam.

“I’m a self-releasing artist, unfortunately after all these years, 22 years,” she says. There’s only a certain budget, time and a certain amount of energy I can put in.”

Over the years this same struggle has been endured by many jazz artists, many of whom adopted an ‘own your own’ principle, and set up publishing companies and record labels. Cast an eye over the history of improvised music and it is not hard to find a number of strong-willed individuals who had the courage of their convictions and simply got on with the daunting job of distributing as well as creating music.

If one were looking for a paragon of self-sufficiency, then few figures are as noteworthy as Mary Lou Williams (1910–1981). A visionary composer and piano prodigy from the swing era who was greatly instructive to the pioneers of bebop, Williams, whom contemporaries dubbed 'the First Lady of keyboard jazz', also established her own imprint, Mary Records, which stands as a relevant antecedent to Rahman’s own label, Manushi.

“I think of it as meaning 'womankind',” says Rahman of the Bengali word. ”Manush means 'human being' and 'human race'.”

A Royal Academy Of Music graduate, Rahman also studied at Berklee College Of Music with another superb ‘post-Williams’ pianist, Joanne Brackeen, and is keen to recognise all these founding mothers.

“I am always listening to all kinds of music and absorbing, but I am completely inspired by other female jazz composers and piano players. As one of them myself I know just how hard it is to exist in a male-dominated industry,” she says emphatically. “So that’s extra inspiration on top of the fact that they are just amazing musicians; I mean the music comes first.

“Those people drive me forward and give me inspiration and confidence to carry on and to know what I’m doing is important. And it’s about expressing something about myself that taps into other people’s emotions. Despite the struggle of not just female musicians but jazz musicians in general, I am hugely inspired by that to create some kind of joy and hope for people around me. It’s not just ‘I’m making some music’.”

The new album bears that out insofar as it is a reflection of the full range of events in Rahman’s life in the past three or four years, from the strain of the pandemic, home schooling and lack of gigs, to the stress of having to temporarily move out after a fire swept through her street to the uplifting show of local solidarity in the aftermath.

“All of those things are in my mind, it’s just part of life,” she says “There are some horrific things going on but there are also beautiful things happening, there is a lot of positive energy. And having children is such a joy! I wanted to express many of those things through my music. While I was mixing the album and thinking about titles, I was reading Afua Hirsch’s Brit(ish). Those books didn’t exist when I was young.

“I grew up in West Sussex, when there weren’t any other families who looked like our family, so that feeds into who I am as a human being and my experience of this world, and all that comes out in my music. But I don’t really dwell on it. I am not here to make a statement politically. But I am who I am, and I do try to connect people.”

Zoe Rahman plays Brecon Jazz Festival (20 Aug), Kings Place, London (6 Sept), Watermill Jazz, Dorking (12 Sept), Midland Arts Centre, Birmingham (21 Sept), Newcastle Festival of Jazz and Improvised Music (28 Sept), Howard Assembly Room, Leeds (8 Oct)
and Tung Auditorium, Liverpool (13 Oct).

This article originally appeared in the August 2023 issue of Jazzwise magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

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