Saxophonist/composer Emma Rawicz, originally from Devon, and currently an undergraduate at the Royal Academy of Music, is already making waves on the London scene. Her debut album “Incantation” will be released this spring. In a wide-ranging interview ahead of her debut at the recently re-opened Polish club Jazz Café POSK, she talks about her forthcoming album, her Polish roots and the huge Instagram following she has built. Interview by Tomasz Furmanek:
LondonJazz News: How and when did you discover jazz?
Emma Rawicz: It happened when I was 12 and my parents took me to an international summer music school in Devon called Dartington Music Summer School. At that point I was playing violin only, mainly classical music. I saw a big band concert there and begged my parents to let me play saxophone, but they wouldn’t until I was 15. The saxophone seemed like the coolest instrument ever and I instantly wanted to play it. I just loved its sound, it just spoke to me, I guess… And the first time I played it I was like “ok, this is my instrument, this is the one I want play!”
LJN: And your early listening…?
ER: It was mostly online really, then I started buying CDs and listening to Charlie Parker and Miles Davis… I didn’t really understand any of it but I knew it was the music I wanted to learn more about. I lived in North Devon, growing up in the country in the middle of nowhere, and there weren’t any gigs to go to, really, or bands to play with, so it was all about just listening to loads of music.
LJN: What other musicians were key figures and influences in your musical development?
ER: Wayne Shorter, Chris Potter, Herbie Hancock, Dave Holland, and many others! I listened to so much music by Wayne, I am sure it has influenced my writing.
The jazz musician who probably had the biggest impact on me was Joe Henderson. I remember hearing his Double Rainbow record, in particular his tune No More Blues – it had such a profound influence on me that I knew I wanted to start playing tenor saxophone, his sound really touched me. Apart from that I came across some Brazilian music because of the percussionist Adriano Adewale who introduced me to it, and I instantly loved it. I also started finding out about some Cuban music. I guess I just wanted to listen to everything… that Joe Henderson record led me down many different musical paths.
LJN: What fascinated you in Joe Henderson’s music?
ER: The colours. Because I have synaesthesia, I see colours when I hear music. When I heard him play the track No More Blues it was visually beautiful, and his sound was so wonderful, so soft… something I hadn’t heard before. And rhythmically so strong as well; everything about his playing was just captivating, made me want to know more.
LJN: Synaesthesia – that’s fascinating.
ER: I’ve always had it, that’s just the way the world is for me. Basically, it’s shapes and colours changing while I’m hearing music. It changes all the time, and all aspects of the music contribute to it. That’s why it’s so interesting for me.
LJN: You’re 19 now; it’s hard to believe you didn’t pick up the tenor saxophone till you were 15. People have mentioned musical maturity and confidence in your playing. How do you react to that?
ER: I am not sure. Personally, I would say I still have so much to learn, and I am far from being “a finished package” – not that there ever is any “finished package” for a musician. Ever since getting my hands on a tenor saxophone and realising what I wanted to do I’ve worked really hard. When I went to Chetham’s School of Music for 2 years I practised 8 or 9 hours a day, every day, because I simply wanted to get better, and I really enjoyed it!
TF: So, playing, performing, being in music is a purpose in itself….?
ER: Absolutely. I think it’s easy to fall into the trap of “I want to sound like this person, or I would like to be able technically to do this thing or play this difficult tune…” but you get so much just out of doing it, you’re learning and improving all the time.
TF: Your debut album of original compositions – “Incantation” – is to be released this spring. What was your approach when you were creating it?
ER: The album is quite diverse in terms of style: there are elements of fusion, Afro-Cuban music, some folk, more traditional and modern jazz styles as well.
I wrote Voodoo, the first track on the album, based on a crazy, abstract, colourful piece of art; I just experimented with sound and found the composition out of it. Then I chose other words based on this theme – like incantation, omen, wishbone, etc. – and used those words as prompts for composition. I think about the word first, then try and make a sound of what this word means and see what happens…
The most special track for me is Vera, which was my grandmother’s name. I wrote it for her after she passed away trying to communicate what a lovely person she was and how much I loved spending time with her. It’s kind of a personal album for me, and it’s my first musical statement that’s going to go out into the world, so it’s quite a big step.
TF: You grew up in rural north Devon, was your childhood full of music?
ER: I wouldn’t say so. My dad plays the piano for fun sometimes, my grandma sometimes played organ in a church, but they weren’t professional musicians. I always loved listening to music, and I played it as much as I could. It was mostly me figuring it out on my own.
TF: You are very active on Instagram and have collected a huge following there…
ER: I started it when I was still in Devon to try and connect with other people who loved the same music as me. I used it as a bit of a practice tool; I’d say “I am working on this, what do you guys think about it, what records do you like?” I carried on posting bits of me playing and things I was up to musically… And then suddenly, my audience just started to grow and grow, especially during lockdown when I started posting even more as I had loads of time to make videos and practise.
TF: What are some of the positive – and possibly negative – effects of that?
ER: I like to make sure to include the real stuff on Instagram, because so often (especially with music) you just get a finished product, polished videos of perfect takes, things that have actually taken ages to look as though they just came out like that straight away. That can be really damaging, especially for jazz musicians.
So, I started sharing things that I was working on or finding difficult, to start a positive conversation around learning music. And now lots of younger players will say to me, “oh this is really inspiring, I am going to work on this now too” or “you’ve made me realise it is ok not to be perfect straight away”.
There are always people online who are going to be negative or less welcoming, but in general I think you can use it as a positive thing, especially if you view it as a kind of community just to support each other.
LJN: On 22 January you will play for the first time at the Jazz Café POSK in London. Tell us a little about your Polish roots.
ER: My grandfather is Polish, he came over during World War II. I don’t really speak Polish, but would love to learn. My Polish connection is not something I know a lot about, but it’s something I’m really interested in. I would like to take a trip there, especially to Warsaw where my family was from, to try to understand a bit more of where I came from and my history.
TF: What will you play at Jazz Café POSK?
ER: We are going to be playing music that I’ve written over past few months that’s based on colours. I’ve basically been trying to find colours you don’t see very often in everyday life and write music based on what I hear when I look at them. So, it’s kind of trying to really explore the synaesthetic angle of looking at music for me. Of course, we’ll be playing some music from my upcoming debut album as well.
Emma Rawicz Quintet will be playing at Jazz Café POSK on Saturday 22 Jan. Tickets available now at link below.
LINKS: Jazz Café POSK website