Review: Zoe Rahman in concert

Michael Tucker relishes the engagingly unpretentious stagecraft and musical effervescence of the pianist's performances in Southampton and Brighton

Classically trained, Zoe Rahman can play with the attack and the power of McCoy Tyner, the quicksilver harmonic literacy of her sometime mentor, Joanne Brackeen, and the lyricism of Bill Evans. Allied to her engagingly unpretentious stagecraft, the pianist’s superb touch and unerring commitment to swing – evident throughout a wide-ranging approach to matters of both repertoire (including the folk-touched) and dynamics – guarantee the sort of gig to send one out into the night with a big, big smile on one’s face. Never was an album more misleadingly titled than Rahman’s 2000 debut, the Mercury Prize-nominated (and recently reissued) The Cynic. As John Fordham has observed, here is an artist who plays with unabashed glee.

Recent months have found Rahman in especial demand, with new albums in the company of George Mraz (Unison) and the Swedes Martina and Owe Almgren (Sparkling Water, Please) to complement her Kindred Spirits quartet release from 2011. Two recent, extremely well-received quartet concert performances, one in late-April at Southampton University’s Turner Sims Hall, and one in mid-May at the Brighton Festival, found her in typically effervescent form, with two different bands.

Both gigs were powered by the excellent bassist Alec Dankworth (pizzicato throughout) but while the Southampton performance had Zoe’s brother Idris on clarinet and tenor saxophone, the whole fired by American drummer Gene Calderazzo, the Brighton date featured British drummer Cheryl Alleyne (playing only her second date with the band, and doing so extremely well) and her compatriot, flautist Rowland Sutherland.

If it was only natural that Idris’s passionate tenor bought a more blues-charged bite to Ellington’s Blue Pepper – from The Far East Suite, and given an extended reading in both concerts – Sutherland deployed regular and alto flute to both poetic and penetrating effect. The lilting Irish-Bengali aspects of the Chichester-born Rahman’s heritage were featured to smile-inducing effect in both concerts, in a mini-suite that melded folk tropes in the manner of her fine 2008 album Where Rivers Meet. Regular Rahman enthusiasts also will have enjoyed the freshness of approach taken to material from albums such as the 2007 Live (Last Note) and the aforementioned Kindred Spirits (Down To Earth, Maya, Conversation With Nellie and Contusion – the last-named Stevie Wonder number given a burning rock-out).

There was also a beautifully turned, light-and-shade reading of These Foolish Things, emerging from the sort of solo improvised sequence that found Rahman moving convincingly from a treble register delicacy worthy of Evans to the sort of judiciously apportioned, overtone-rich and rumbling dissonance in the bass frequencies that brought Cecil Taylor to mind. Hugely enjoyable, the music of Zoe Rahman lifts heart and mind, body and soul alike. If you haven’t yet caught her live, do yourself a big favour and do so, just as soon as you can.

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