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Rachel Z Trio's 'Everlasting' on Tone Center Streets Today

SOURCE: Published: 2004-05-25
Rachel Z Piano
Tony Levin - Basses
Bobbie Rae - Drums

There's an intriguing dilemma facing jazz musicians these days. Looming over the constant challenge of mastering one's instrument and learning to play through the changes is the added problem of a shrinking jazz market. In the face of such grim reality, what's a (living) jazz musician to do? How does one connect with new listeners and “grow the audience" for jazz without selling out or dumbing down?

The gifted pianist-composer-arranger Rachel Z has come up with a creative solution. Without resorting to novelty, bombast, or spectacle, Ms. Z is managing to make the age-old piano trio combo sound relevant and fresh to younger ears. And she's made this improbable connection without sacrificing her artistry or forsaking her own connection to the jazz piano legacy of Bud Powell, Wynton Kelly, Ahmad Jamal, Bill Evans, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea.

On Everlasting, Rachel reaches out to a younger audience by wrapping her penchant for sophisticated reharmonization and her infinite capacity to swing into the fabric of familiar fare that resonates with deeper meaning to the under 30 set. And she does so organically, genuinely, and honestly, bringing her refined, alluring touch and playful sense of melodicism to bear on popular songs of the day.

It's an old school formula that has been used repeatedly by the likes of Miles Davis ("If I Were A Bell"), Sonny Rollins ("I'm An Old Cowhand"), Thelonious Monk ("Tea For Two") and all the greats of jazz over time. Putting one's own personal imprint on a familiar tune or hit song is a tried and true formula in jazz. But rather than drawing from Tin Pan Alley or Broadway show tunes from the '40s and '50s, as jazz masters of the past have done, Ms. Z is turning to today's talent like r&b singers Seal and Sade or alternative rockers Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins for her source material. As she says, “If you keep playing 'Stella By Starlight' to 15 year olds, they're just never gonna really get it because it's not part of their history. But if you play something that they are intimately familiar with, something that is a part of their own history, then you can really connect with them."

That kind of inclusiveness is a key to Ms. Z's work these days with her piano trio (Bassist Tony Levin, who plays with her in Peter Gabriel's band, (whom she describes as a legend and a man who has humbly shaped and changed modern bass playing"), and drummer Bobby Rae ("He co-arranged this CD's music, and is a major force in the new sound of the trio with his unusual, unique, and powerful accompaniment."). By blowing McCoy- or Herbie-styled licks over the top of these pop vehicles, it becomes a sly, subversive way for Rachel to satisfy her jazz jones while simultaneously growing the audience.

On Everlasting, Rachel has her way with a bevy of pop and rock stars. She puts a surging, McCoy Tyner-ish spin on the George Harrison anthem “Here Comes The Sun" then turns in an uncommonly delicate rendition of Seal's “Kissed By A Rose." Bobbie Rae's “Mortal" taps right into that strain of translucent Keith-Chick-Herbie pianism that was so vital for a generation of players coming of age in the '70s and '80s while her light, lyrical and eminently swinging rendition of “Ring of Fire" is radically recast from Johnny Cash's gritty original. She plumbs the emotional depths of the Stones' melancholy ballad “Wild Horses" while transforming Soundgarden's “Black Hole Sun" into an uptempo swinging romp (dig Tony's walking bassline against Bobby's hip, interactive pulse), then underscores Sting's poignant “Fields of Gold" with rare eloquence and melodicism.

Elsewhere, Ms. Z and company turn Steely Dan's “Kid Charlemagne" into a earthy vehicle worthy of vintage Ramsey Lewis or Les McCann. They bring a briskly swinging quality to bear on Smashing Pumpkins' “Tonite, Tonite" and put up the requisite funk underneath Sade's “Kisses of Life," courtesy of Levin's' urgent low end groove on Stick. The closer is Rachel's dramatic rendition of “Red Rain" by her current employer Peter Gabriel. At a recent trio gig in Milan, Italy, the entire audience joined in singing the lyrics when Rachel and crew broke into this familiar Gabriel song. “That's quite a feeling when you get an audience to participate like that," she says. “It's great when you can play a rock tune and blow Herbie stuff on it and not lose anybody. In fact, these were not really jazz fans but they were kind of freaking out when we played that song. So it's kind of interesting to see how these different elements can work together, and we're trying to go in this direction now."

Rachel ushered in the new millennium with her acclaimed piano trio outing On The Milky Way Express: A Tribute to the Music of Wayne Shorter, her debut on Tone Center Records. She followed that up in 2002 with Moon At The Window, her tribute to the songwriting artistry of Joni Mitchell, and in August of 2002 joined Peter Gabriel's band for a U.S. tour that lasted through December. There followed a European tour from April to July 2003 and a South African tour that included a gala performance for Nelson Mandela. She plans to be out on the road manning a bank of synthesizers with Gabriel this summer. Meanwhile, Rachel is reveling in the acoustic purity of her own trio as heard on Everlasting, her third and most affecting date for Tone Center.

Rachel Z Trio
Everlasting
Tone Center 4033
Street Date: May 25


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