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Grace by Rachel Z

Rachel Z, despite or maybe as a result of her jazz chops, has always been searching for more than improvisational variations on the tried-and-true standards, even though she’s not averse to playing them as well when she has an concept that she thinks will transform a standard or two into another musical experience altogether. Unabashedly pursuing her musical influences during her growth as a musician, Z has recorded music by country/wester artists like Johnny Cash, rock groups like The Rolling Stones or of course jazz artists like Wayne Shorter. Through it all, Z has proven to be a fluid and interpretive pianist, who has smoothed out the rough edges of songs by the likes of Smashing Pumpkins or has delved into the intricacies of works like Miles Davis’ "Nardis."

However, one of the influences that Ms. Nicolazzo has not shown in her past recordings is her interest in singing and specifically her operatic background. Initially trained as a classical performer, Z was bitten by the jazz bug early and never returned to singing on a recorded basis.... until now. Like all of Z’s other albums, Grace comprises a large number of her original compositions, piquant and transcending categories, as well as some covers. In the case of Grace, the covers she chooses are those by U2, Björk, Kurt Cobain, John Lennon and Kate Bush. True to her intention to adapt the voicings and arrangements of jazz to the music that the twenty-somethings hear on the radio, Z has paid deference to the composers’ original inspirations, but at the same time she has seen their music through jazz-colored glasses, converting a song like Kobain’s "Come As You Are" into a surging performance that contains elements of swing, Impressionism and aggressive propulsion, the moods shifting throughout the piece itself, from romp to introspective reverie. Attaining relevance for multiple generations of listeners, no matter what their musical predilections, Z has been omnivorous in her collecting of various styles and genres to incorporate into the whole that is her own style. In a similar vein, U2’s "One" showcases Bobbie Rae’s understanding of Z’s vision as he opens the song with ominous clattering and rumbling percussion, Afro-Cuban in its polyrhythmic complexity and message-laden communicative ability.

A joint project that Z and Rae have been considering for the good part of a decade, Grace came to be when she took the concept to producers Norman and David Chesky, who immediately signed her upon listening to just one piece. The next thing they knew, Z’s trio was recording an entire album in St. Peters Episcopal Church in New York, according to Chesky Records’ diligent fidelity standards that approximate the sound of a natural performance as closely as possible without overdubs and with a single-point microphone.

And the singing? Z chooses to express a multitude of human conditions and emotions through her own compositions like "Grace" ("How did this happen to me?/How did I lose my grace?") or "Riot" ("What if you unraveled your life?/What if you began to feel again?/What if you lost your heart, and then/What if you came undone?"). In fact, the bringing together of popular music with Z’s musicianship and the feelings expressed in her lyrics form a unified statement throughout the CD, so carefully chosen were the covers and so articulate are the lyrics of Z’s songs. On the tracks where she does sing, inevitably the piece glides into an instrumental section that picks up the musical theme, contrasting the roiling currents of her piano playing with the sometimes anguished feelings described in her lyrics.

As Z continues to record, she has recorded a series of increasingly personal albums that have helped to define her as she searches for new means of expression that appeals to all listeners, even as she draws inspiration from the contemporary music of the current generation.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Rachel Z
  • CD Title: Grace
  • Genre: Progressive
  • Year Released: 2005
  • Record Label: Chesky Records
  • Tracks: Protect This Child, Moon In Your Hair, One, Grace, Pain, Come As You Are, This Woman’s Work, Riot, Joga, Imagine
  • Musicians: Rachel Z (vocals, piano), Chris J. Luard (bass), Bobbie Rae (drums, percussion)
  • Rating: Three Stars
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