Zoe Rahman plays hard piano, and that’s good. Her father is Bengali, her mother is English, and she’s deep into jazz flavored by Bengali culture. She composes but what I really like is how she mashes the keys.
Percussive attack. Extra-strong left hand, delves deeply into the bass clef. You can feel her runs rumble. She can flow soft as water trickle but most often releases a torrent of notes, albeit carefully chosen notes mind you. This is no headlong rush of cacophony. No matter how fast the tempo, she knows which way the wind is blowing.
The shape of her solos seem right, complete, both scintillating and orderly. It’s been a while since I’ve so immediately engaged with piano music. Among her peers right now I can call to mind Marc Cary but that’s about it. I don’t claim to be an expert on what’s happening now but I do know Zoe Rahman is happening.
The Live – 2009 trio album, which features her brother Idris sitting in on clarinet for the last two tracks, is where I suggest folk start to appreciate what she is doing. She has three other albums. Two jazz trio albums, Cynic – 2001, Melting Pot – 2005, and Where Rivers Meet – 2009, an album that is a collaboration with her brother focusing on interpretations of music and forms drawn from the culture of Bangladesh. All of the albums are good but the new Live album has a startling spark of fierce light. The other stuff was fireplace and campfire in the sweet Live is laser zap announcing a tightly focused, musically dense fierceness.
After one or two minutes it’s easy to tell she has listened to and absorbed modern jazz piano. Rahman reveals, “Very early on I transposed some Horace Silver’s pieces. I listened to a lot of Eddie Palmieri, and then later Abdullah Ibrahim and Bud Powell. I also really love Chopin, Rachmaninov and Bartok.”
She has studied formally (a degree in music from Oxford and a stint at Berklee College of Music in Boston, plus mentoring from pianists Julian Joseph and JoAnne Brackeen) so there are any number of possible influences for her composing skills and her adroitness with structuring solos. Who knows what all went into the mix, I just know that I like the results.
Zoe is currently playing with Courtney Pine in addition to her trio work.
Zoe Rahman is another example of the magnificent gift that is jazz, a musical artform that any person, regardless of gender, ethnicity or whatever, any person can play jazz and the music they play be immediately recognized as jazz even as the music they play reveals and revels in the particulars of that person’s cultural identity. Or as Rahman notes: “What I love about jazz is that it’s accommodating – or should be – it has the potential to take bits from everything. There’s a world music scene, a folk scene, a pop scene; but for me it’s all music.”
I don’t know much about jazz with a Bangladesh flavor but I know I’m digging Zoe Rahman’s music and am knocked out by her approach to the keyboard.
—Kalamu ya Salaam