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Rachel Z

On her new album, Moon at the Window (Tone Center), pianist Rachel Z (aka Nicolazzo) plays homage to the music of Joni Mitchell, including such songs as "Big Yellow Taxi" and "Free Man In Paris." Rounding out the trio is drummer Bobbie Rae and bassist Patricia Des Lauriers (replaced on tour by Nikki Parrott).

Rachel raps on how exposure to Joni Mitchell in kindergarten led to her new album, how a jazz pianist ends up playing with Peter Gabriel and wonders if not playing team sports hurts women in jazz bands.

JazzReview: What motivated you to make an album dedicated to the music of Joni Mitchell?

Rachel Z: I grew up with Joni Mitchell’s music. We had a pretty hip kindergarten teacher who had us singing ‘Both Sides Now.’ When I was in high school, I had a friend that played a lot of Joni Mitchell songs. Joni’s lyrics to songs like ‘All I Want,’ ‘Blue’ and ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ were such an inspiration to me. She was political, but never judgmental. It was just good songwriting. I sang and played her songs through high school, but then I didn’t sing anymore once I went to music school because I was focusing on jazz. After about five years of a jazz career, I realized I wanted to sing again. One of the things I went back to was Joni Mitchell. She was like a great person to get me through an artistic transition. I went back to ‘All I Want,’ which I hadn’t heard in about ten years. It made me dream again.

JazzReview: I read a review in a local publication following the Rachel Z Trio’s appearance at an area jazz club, where the critic wondered why you didn’t try to sing Joni’s music instead of just playing it.

Rachel Z: [Puzzled] It seems kind of obvious, doesn’t it? If I’m doing a jazz piano gig, why would I sing Joni Mitchell songs? I’m doing a jazz piano version of Joni Mitchell songs, not singing Joni Mitchell songs. If I’m going to sing, I’m going to write my own songs. Anyone that covers her is going to fall by the wayside compared to the original. What’s interesting is the artist’s interpretation of a song. People have done interpretations of Joni, but that’s not what I do. I don’t sing jazz.

JazzReview: The album that did feature your vocals was Love is the Power, but I remember when I asked you to sign it, you wrinkled your nose like you smelled something bad. Were you unhappy with that album?

Rachel Z: Love is the Power is my best attempt at smooth jazz. The fact that it was too hip for smooth jazz was really depressing. Actually it got played a lot in New York. We were hoping it might expand the genre, but nothing happened with it. I put something out there that I really didn’t want to do, then I found out the genre was even more closed than I thought it was.

It was like a double mistake. The third mistake was that every one of those songs had lyrics and they were really alternative rock songs. I wish I have had more courage to tell my label, ‘I’m not going to do this. Maybe you should just drop me.’ Which is eventually what happened. I bought out my deal because I decided I didn’t want to do that kind of music. Love is the Power was a bid for commercial success, which I really needed at the time. That it didn’t happen was really crushing.

JazzReview: Now with the Joni Mitchell tribute and prior to that, On the Milky Way Express was an interpretation of Wayne Shorter’s compositions. Is making this kind of music what really satisfies you?

Rachel Z: The Wayne Shorter and Joni Mitchell tributes are really cool. I like doing covers and with each album, I’ve learned a lot about songwriting. We deconstruct it and spend a lot of time rehearsing. The artistic process is pretty pure so I learn a lot from it. Then you go on the road. So there’s the rehearsal, recording and the road, and that process makes you a better musician.

The ultimate is making records like A Room of One’s Own. But they are expensive to make with a wind ensemble and everything. It was really genre pushing because it has classical instruments.

JazzReview: The record industry seems to be in total chaos and there has been a pruning of jazz artists from the rosters of the major labels. Your first album was released on Columbia and now you’re on a small independent, Tone Center. How do you keep your focus with the upheaval of the music business?

Rachel Z: Luckily I have some smart people around me. Wayne Shorter taught me to chant and by chanting, you really get to spend some time with yourself. You can figure out what you need to do.

There are some specific things an artist can do. For example, now you can get a thousand CD’s with a barcode for a thousand bucks. How much do we need distribution really? I like getting paid to make records, but now people can work day jobs and make records. Sometimes, that can be better. It might take longer to get to your artistic pinnacle, but if you sit alone with yourself, you will find the music you’re supposed to be making. In other words: go introspective rather than wait for the label to dictate your next record.

There are some talented A&R people and they have good ideas, but you have your own focus that comes from God, Buddha or whatever. Labels don’t generally have a marketing plan. It’s got to be by the artist or a really talented manager. These days my relationship with my record company is like a friendship. They don’t have a lot of resources, but they spend them smartly. I don’t know if I would want to still be on Columbia because those labels don’t have the freedom to do what we do.

I’m trying to be responsible for what I can control; booking gigs and getting in the van to go to the gig, sending out the press materials and doing the interview. That’s stuff I can control. But I can’t control retail and whether they have shipped the units. I can see 50 CD’s at a club, but I can’t be sure the label has shipped them to Borders because there are ten people between the store and me.

JazzReview: You’re playing keyboards in Peter Gabriel’s band. The opportunity to work with him forced you to delay going out to promote Moon at the Window. How did you get hooked up with Gabriel?

Rachel Z: People like Mike Mainieri; they’re just there with a good word when you need it. He recommended me to Gabriel and my friend Duncan Sheik, a rock singer, referred me to Gabriel’s people. It’s all about relationships in this business. Peter is an amazing songwriter, performer and orchestrator. There’s a lot of benefit from working with Gabriel. You learn a lot from him.

You can’t pigeonhole musicians as one thing or another anymore. There are too many financial reasons why people have to do what they have to do to survive. I’ve been fortunate because what I’ve done to survive is work with really great master musicians, people like Mike Mainieri, Wayne Shorter, Al Di Meola, Stanley Clarke, Lenny White and Peter Gabriel.

JazzReview: It’s got to be quite a change going from jazz clubs to playing arenas with Peter Gabriel. You’re tooling around in Paul Allen’s private jet and it’s first-class everything when you’re playing rock n’ roll. Is it tempting to go all the way and be a full-time sideman for rock n’ rollers?

Rachel Z: It’s not just an affair with jazz. I consider myself a jazz musician because I’ve studied it for so long and I have serious plans for it long term. Jazz is a lifetime commitment. My aspiration is to become like the Keith Jarrett Trio. We want to play concert halls and that takes time. It takes time to develop artistry and direction.

JazzReview: Okay, I hate to have to ask, but is the whole issue of women playing jazz an over-and-done subject?

Rachel Z: There’s a lot of complexity with the ‘women in jazz’ issue. That issue is something I try to stay away from because I’ve looked at it from both sides now [laughs].

I’ve had all-women bands and it has been a huge opportunity for labels. I had two young women in my band when I was trying to get a deal with Columbia and they just didn’t see that as lucrative. They didn’t sign.

Nikki Parrott has been playing the bass since she was small. She just came up with a bass in her hands. It just happens that she picked that instrument and unusually, she’s actually good with it. There are several good women on bass like Tracy Wormworth, who plays electric. The acoustic players don’t have the drive to be the best, I think. The thing with women is they don’t get the apprenticeship positions. Terri Lyne Carrington is a major figure on drums because she’s consistently playing with people like Wayne [Shorter] and Herbie Hancock, and they’re constantly mentoring her.

JazzReview: So you’re saying that a lot of women don’t get the chance to "pay dues" and learn their craft by playing in the bands of great musicians? Why then are there so many women out there leading their own bands?

Rachel Z: I don’t necessarily think a lot of people should be bandleaders. And that’s another problem. I don’t know if women know to play as a team. They don’t grow up playing team sports. We grow up with playing dolls in pairs of two and later on you compete for guys. Mostly it’s women competing with each other. They’re not used to playing on a team that wins something together.

Diana Krall and Norah Jones, there are no girls in their bands. All guys. That makes no sense. They get in the most powerful positions in jazz and they can’t find one girl for their band?

A lot of women leading bands don’t want younger women or women at all in the band. We just don’t work together as well as we could. I’ve actually never been helped by a woman, except for one time. Tracy Wormworth helped me get with Wayne Shorter. This is a slight problem you face as a woman bandleader. Women do not know how to be in a band. They may have a problem with your authority. They may have a problem committing. Maybe they don’t take you as seriously as a guy.

JazzReview: You played with Najee and were in Steps Ahead and Al Di Meola’s band before you went solo. Did that prepare you to try and lead your own band?

Rachel Z: Most sidemen think they should be leading the band. Like I did [laughs]. I think there’s a spiritual side to being a sideman and I definitely did not have it when I was 18 years old. I was schooled by Mike and Victor Bailey. It was, ‘Don’t do that. Do this. Play this. Don’t play that.’ It was like a five-year program on being a person. A lot of women don’t get that.

JazzReview: I always wonder how the classic Miles Davis Quintet of Tony Williams, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock and Wayne [Shorter] could hold back their own egos in order to follow the lead of Miles, whom by most accounts wasn’t the easiest man to work with. Maybe they thought, ‘Okay, Miles isn’t a nice guy, but he is a genius and I can get so much better from what I learn by playing with him.’

Rachel Z: Yeah. I think the guys in the Miles Davis Quintet worked so well as a band. It’s amazing that they were all such charismatic leaders, but they did give Miles total respect, maybe because he was a boxer and knocked them out [laughs].

JazzReview: What else are you working on besides touring with Peter Gabriel this summer?

Rachel Z: We have so many project that we’re cooking up over here. We have the Z Trio and I want to go in and record with Bobbie and Nikki. We have &&&Amplified,&&& which is Bobbie’s pop/rock band. We still have my rock band &&&Peacebox.&&& That record needs to be mixed and it’s just really been hard to get to that because I’m touring with Gabriel. Then, there’s another thing called &&&Urban Fields,&&& which is like garage jazz.

I don’t even deal with smooth jazz anymore. I’m a jazz musician, but in the old Charlie Parker style. I can play it just in my house and be totally happy. I want to grow in the art form. I’d love to grow in ticket sales. That would be great because then you can play more. I’d love to make more records that are better distributed so that more people can hear the music.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Rachel Z
  • Subtitle: Something in the Way She Grooves
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