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REVIEW/ PHOTOS: Zoe Rahman at NAC in Wolverhampton

Zoe Rahman
Photo credit: John Watson /

Zoe Rahman
(NAC, Wolverhampton, 7 March 2019. Review and photos by John Watson)

When Zoe Rahman arrived in Wolverhampton to perform her first concert in the city for six years she opened her hastily-packed bag and – by an extraordinary coincidence – the first thing she pulled out was a “Jazz At Wolverhampton” T-shirt.

Extraordinary, because she had just grabbed some clothes before leaving home and hadn’t realised the T-shirt was among them. “So this was meant to be!” Zoe told a packed audience at the NAC venue, a spacious arts centre near the city’s West Park.

It has been fascinating to witness the evolution of the pianist’s music. I’ve been fortunate to hear many of her performances, from early days with her UK trio to collaborations with her clarinettist brother Idris Rahman, exploring the music of their Bengali heritage, plus appearances with Jerry Dammers Spatial AKA Orchestra celebrating the music of Sun Ra, and duets with saxophonist and bass clarinettist Courtney Pine (duets which were much more successful on disc than the two live shows I heard, in which Rahman had too little space). And there have been acclaimed recordings with bassist George Mraz, as well as performances in the UK and abroad with a host of distinguished players.

But I’m particularly looking forward to a collaboration with fellow pianist Nikki Yeoh, on 2 May at Kings Place in London, and on 4 May at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival. I think those concerts are likely to be very special, and Zoe told me that there may be a recording issued in the future. “So watch this space!” she said.

Zoe Rahman
Photo credit: John Watson /

For her solo concert at Wolverhampton, she recreated pieces from her excellent 2016 album Dreamland (released on her own label Manushi), plus new original compositions, two of which remain untitled.

She opened the concert with the first track from the solo album, a powerful and structurally imaginative piece, Red Squirrel, with massive waves of keyboard colour evolving into an even-quaver groove. There were excursions, too, into McCoy Tyner-ish suspended fourths – one of many passages during the concert where she showed the depth of her knowledge of earlier keyboard masters, from stride to boogie-woogie and even fierce free-improvised abstraction.

A powerful opening, which was balanced by her second piece, Fast Asleep, which she dedicated to “anyone in the audience with young children”. This was, however, no “Hush, my darlings, time for sleepy-byes” ballad. It was delivered very firmly indeed, like a stern mummy saying: “Hey – settle down you lot!” In fact, what has always appealed to me about Zoe’s playing is the sheer musical muscularity of her keyboard technique – yes, there are moments of delicate sensitivity, but she creates strong blocks of expertly articulated phrases without ever seeming to over-hammer the instrument. She creates superbly controlled colours, too, with hands directly on the strings, evoking in one solo the riff from Miles Davis’s So What, with extra overtones loaded onto its chords.

Her Bengali heritage from her father’s side of the family is, of course, a major part of her music. The piece Kor Milono Choo Birohi – by the poet and musician Rabindranath Tagore – has gorgeous textures. Curiously, its melodic simplicity seemed to me to also evoke the Norwegian hymns transformed into spacious improvisations by pianist Tord Gustavsen.

One of her yet-to-be-titled themes, explorative and richly textured, involved extensive free improvising, all within a harmonic structure and without dissonance, but certainly atmospheric, if perhaps too long. There’s always a risk that an improviser becomes too absorbed in their own world, entering a kind of self-hypnosis and rambling aimlessly. It is all to easy for the music to drift from being in a mellow tone to being in a monotone.

Zoe did, however, present many very lively pieces, including a superb stride-style version of These Foolish Things, and an old favourite from her repertoire, Conversation With Nellie, dedicated to her Irish grandmother. Overall, then, a glorious cultural mix.

The new series, promoted by the organisation Jazz At Wolverhampton, opened with trumpeter Steve Fishwick’s Quartet in February, and continues with Kit Downes at NAC on 3 May, Henry Lowther’s Still Waters (at the city’s Arena Theatre) on 18 May, and Iain Ballamy at NAC on 14 June.

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