Rachel Z & Omar Hakim
Trio of Oz
Three and a half stars
Pulling jazz out of the museum and pushing it back into the here and now is a tough gig, and one that most jazz musicians don’t tend to bother with much these days. Learning the form, even in its most purely imitative incarnation, is incredibly time-consuming and demands both immense skill and ample discipline.
Jazz is a music that has always been most effective when its vision was most radical, however. Be-bop, modal, third-stream, the earliest examples of what came to be called “fusion”—all of these forms-within-the-form were born of a restless irreverence and a desire to make the music relevant to the moment and the era in which it is being played. Traditionalists have trouble with this notion. They should just keep quiet and listen to whatever period they favor, however.
Pianist RachelZhas approached her work with a fearlessness that implies an ever-present creative wanderlust, one that has served her incredibly well. She’s worked with Wayne Shorter and Steps Ahead, and brought her abundant musicality to Peter Gabriel’s stages across the world during his “Up” tour. Zhas never been an acoustic purist, often experimenting with electric keyboards and synths. For her new project, a
trio joining the pianist to the brilliant drummer Omar Hakim (Weather Report, Miles Davis, Sting, David Bowie) and bassist Maeve Royce, an acoustic piano is her instrument of choice, however. That’s wonderful because we can hear all the nuances of her melodic lines, rich chord voicings and rhythmic call-and-response with Hakim and Royce. The piano playing is fresh, exciting, irreverent and adventurous throughout, and the rhythm section ceaselessly bold and brave.
The material may be the deal-breaker for some listeners but it shouldn’t be. Z, Hakim and Royce have radically re-Rachel harmonized modern pieces from what might loosely be described as the “pop songbook.”Purists may scoff at jazz interpretations of tunes by Alice in Chains, Coldplay, the Killers and Morrissey, but even a cursory listen makes it plain that this is sophisticated music, full of risk-taking improvisations, harmonic invention and collective virtuosity.
Hearing Z thrusting dense chord clusters into Death Cab for Cutie’s “I Will Possess Your Heart,” while Hakim’s roiling pulse implies a Latin feel, is a pure joy. Dungen’s “Det Tar Tid” is reimagined as a Joe Zawinulesque post-bop piece, buoyed by the edgy beauty of Royce’s bowed bass. An impressionistic interpretation of the Killers’ “When You Were Young” allows the pianist to strut her chord-substituting stuff, and by its end, has proven itself to be an emotional powerhouse.
This is exciting modern jazz, the sort that fulfills the form’s dictum to change or fade away. It also is the most successful example of rock songs reimagined as jazz this side of Brad Mehldau’s Radiohead covers. Outstanding.