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19 août 2008

Rachel Z Returns With More “Good and Evil”

Written by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor, Wednesday, 06 August 2008

Rachel Z and DOGE

"In the music, I tend to play minor chords. That's why I'm in the department of evil. We joke about it a lot, but the chords are kind of scary. They represent a harmony I really enjoy, one that came out of the late '60s with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter. The department of good has the bass and drums. They're funky, groovy, slinky, sexy -- all the happy things."Rachel Z

Sometimes the true nature of jazz is obliterated by our tendency to classify and label. Despite its “melting pot” roots and evolution, the genre is often embroiled in controversy over its definition. Enter an undeniably talented pianist/vocalist/composer whose chops shout Shorter and Hancock while her repertoire screams Sting and Stones. Such fusion of stylistic ideas has haunted popular performers from Miles Davis to the Bad Plus, and similarly, Rachel Nicolazzo—known simply as Rachel Z—and her Dept of Good and Evil ensemble. Next weekend, Rachel and DOGE return to the stage of the Dakota in downtown Minneapolis for a weekend of unclassifiable fun and serious musicmaking.

Rachel Z initially seemed destined to follow her mother into the world of opera. Growing up in Manhattan, she began voice lessons at age two, then classical piano at seven; she attended her first opera at age nine. “My first doll house was a Metropolitan Opera House,” she notes. But on hearing “Miles’ Smiles” at age 15, she began improvising against the grain of her classical repertoire and was soon playing in a band covering Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan. She further crossed the classical-to-jazz divide by listening to Herbie Hancock’s interpretations of Wayne Shorter, launching a quintet named Nardis, and studying with Joanne Brackeen and Richie Bierach.

Rachel graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where she worked with Bob Moses, Miroslav Vitous and George Garzone. Back in New York in 1988, she toured with NEC classmate Najee and co-wrote the title track to the smooth saxman’s best-selling Tokyo Blue. Throughout the 90s, she played with fusion band Steps Ahead, Al DiMeola, Larry Coryell, Special EFX, Angela Bonfil and Mike Mainieri, who produced her debut release, Trust the Universe (1993). Next Z collaborated with hero Wayne Shorter, arranging, playing acoustic piano, and directing his tour for the Grammy-winning High Life. In the mid-90s, she extensively toured in support of her album dedicated to women artists, A Room of One’s Own, before turning to more electronic-driven music via Vertu (Al DiMeola, Stanley Clarke and Lenny White). Over the past decade, her efforts have encompassed interpretations of everyone from classic jazz giants to contemporary pop and rock stars, including recorded tributes to Wayne Shorter and Joni Mitchell. A global tour with Peter Gabriel (2002-2004) as well as three more recordings brought her international attention.

About two years ago, Rachel formed Dept. of Good and Evil. For percussion she looked to long-time collaborator Bobbie Rae, an equally eclectic musician with a long resume of mostly indie rock projects as drummer, producer, arranger, and educator. A native of Philadelphia, Bobbie is a founding member of Amplify, performs in duo as Twin Engines with guitarist Jimmy Walls, and has lived and worked throughout Europe. For acoustic bass, Rachel tapped Maeve Royce, one of her students at the New School in Manhattan. Growing up in Baltimore, Maeve started out on cello, switching to electric bass and then acoustic bass at 15. She began playing in Philly-area jazz clubs while attending Rowan College, later making the move to New York and the New School. Additional sonic power on Dept of Good and Evil comes from another long-time partner, electric bassist Tony Levin, and Twin Cities-based trumpeter, Erik Naslund.

Dept of Good and Evil is a natural extension of Z’s tendency to reconstruct favorite tunes from pop, rock, and Goth. Notes Rachel, “I loved the Good and Evil concept, which reflects everything going on these days, not only in government but also in the music world where overhyped projects are often terrible and others which get no hype are great…Bobbie and Maeve are the good, and I’m the harmonically evil one. Dept. of Good and Evil is the best of everything for me, exciting material to work with and an incredible ensemble of players which I just love vibing with…we can play a whole night of jazz standards and then turn around the next and do a strictly rock and groove thing.”

Mixing the “rock and groove thing” with inventive post bop explorations yields a recording that covers both familiar and obscure tunes as well as three original compositions, two from Rachel Z and one co-written with Bobbie Rae, who also produced the recording and contributes arrangements on all tracks. Despite the disparate sources, overall the recording flows like a multi-part suite, not only from track to track but even within specific tracks as Z and company shift mood and rhythm from moment to moment, yet always tethered by a golden thread of musical logic. The result is one of the most exciting piano-led recordings I’ve heard in the past year―Z’s eclectic history may disguise the fact that she is among the top echelon of modern jazz pianists, with a strong emphasis on “jazz.” Listen to Rachel and multiple influences are apparent: Fred Hersch in the elegance of her elongated phrases with contrasting clipped and chordal passages; McCoy Tyner in the runs that swing with power while challenging the speed limit; Keith Jarrett in the structures that spiral through the universe, exploring all directions; and most of all, idol Herbie Hancock who integrates all of the above.

Be it a blessing or curse, Rachel Z’s eclectic appetite has proven a commercial success over the release of eight recordings and numerous tours, bridging genres and sonic sensibilities in reaching listeners from multiple generations. And assuming the diverse origins of musical ideas are simultaneously irrelevant and basic to modern jazz, Z’s current project should serve to place her exactly where she belongs—among the most talented and inventive of 21st century post bop magicians, one who should appeal equally to those raised on U2 and Smashing Pumpkins and those steeped in the lineage of Evans, Jarrett, Hancock and Tyner.

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