Pianist and composer Zoe Rahman has over a decade of experience as a professional musician and having won MOBO and Parliamentary jazz awards for her work, is an ideal figure to lead the third instalment of the Jazz Directors Series. As trumpeter Terence Blanchard and saxophonist Chris Potter before her; Rahman will lead an ensemble of talented, young musicians through a residency and subsequent UK tour, performing pieces from her back catalogue and additional compositions by renowned jazz artists. We caught up with Zoe to discuss her thoughts ahead of the residency and she told us more about the repertoire of music they will perform as well as discussing her musical upbringing and thoughts about women’s representation in jazz music.
As a young musician, your education took you from Oxford to Boston. How vital was the tuition and guidance you received a young musician in shaping the artist you are today, and has your experience in music education informed the way you interact with the next generation on players?
I’ve been lucky to have some great piano teachers throughout my life. I’ve also learnt so much from playing with other musicians and by going to see gigs and listening to music – it’s a constant learning process. All of those experiences have shaped my playing and the way I write music and I love sharing that with other people in the same way that my teachers shared their knowledge with me.
Yourself and brother Idris have both found your way into musical careers; was your upbringing a musical one and were your parents, with their differing backgrounds, influential in your decision to explore the music of various countries and cultures?
We always had music in our house – we have an older sister who plays classical piano and our youngest sister is also very musical and we used to all play and listen to music together. Our parents took us to all kinds of music events and we all had a great classroom teacher at primary school who taught us various instruments and made music a part of our everyday lives in school. I discovered jazz as a teenager and started listening to the music of my Bengali heritage much later in life. My parents didn’t push us in any particular musical direction but just by existing they’ve had a huge influence on the music I make!
The ensemble will for the Jazz Directors Series will comprise of ten musicians, including brass and woodwind players. Have you played with similar ensembles before or does this represent a new experience for you?
I arranged some of my music a few years ago for a 10-piece ensemble at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama for a performance at their Jazz festival. When I was asked to do the Jazz Directors Series, I decided to re-visit some of those arrangements, keeping the same instrumentation and developing some of the ideas for this particular project, as well as adding more tunes.
The repertoire you and the group are set to perform includes music from your latest album Dreamland, as well as compositions that are yet to be recorded. What can audiences expect from the new compositions and is the project requiring you to rearrange or alter any of your existing work?
The pieces I’ve chosen represent my music from across my career – there’s music from my first album, “The Cynic”, through all six of my albums, including “Melting Pot”, “Where Rivers Meet” and my latest album “Dreamland”, so there’s quite a wide variety of music.
It’s been great arranging my tunes with this ensemble in mind – I haven’t met most of the musicians yet so I’m sure that in the rehearsal room and on the gigs the music will develop beyond what I’ve already envisaged – I’m really looking forward to hearing what the musicians bring to my music. We’re also going to be playing music by Duke Ellington and Abdullah Ibrahim, two of my favourite artists.
What music has most excited you this year, are there any artists you haven’t been able to stop listening to, new or old?
I loved hearing pianist Hiromi as well as Leo Pellegrino at the BBC Proms this year – both great performers.
Do you feel that women are well represented in jazz music today and do you feel that the efforts of musicians like Marian McPartland as long as forty years ago have led to a more balanced scene today, or do you feel there is still work to be done?
There’s still a long way to go unfortunately. There are plenty of women out there who play and compose jazz, as there have been throughout the history of the music, but they don’t always get the opportunities or the recognition they deserve. I’m really happy that there are five other women joining me on stage for these gigs and I’m really looking forward to working with such a diverse line-up.
Zoe Rahman and the Inner City Ensemble perform in Morecambe, Bradford, Warrington and Manchester this month.