Interview: Zoe Rahman on challenging perceptions of women in jazz

Zoe Rahman plays the Blue Lamp in Aberdeen on 10 March as part of this year's Aberdeen Jazz Festival
Zoe Rahman plays the Blue Lamp in Aberdeen on 10 March as part of this year's Aberdeen Jazz Festival
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Pianist Zoe Rahman is one of the most intriguingly distinctive players on the UK jazz scene. Her Anglo-Bengali heritage – not to mention Irish input via her grandmother – has seen the MOBO-award-winning musician forge a style that combines often powerful drive and resonance with an eclectic yet sensitive musicality that embraces influences as diverse as Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and the Bengali poet and composer Rabindranath Tagore.

There are, of course, more immediate influences, bearing in mind that, apart from trio albums and an acclaimed solo album, Dreamland in 2016, her collaborators in recent years have included reeds maestro Courtney Pine, bassist George Mraz and many others. They have all fortified her musicianship. “When you work with other people, especially in smaller settings, as the piano player you’ve got to broaden your playing. Also performing solo has really pushed my playing,” Rahman tells me.

Perhaps the biggest development, she says, is the fact she now has two young children: “That’s been quite good for me because I’m not practising quite as much as I used to, so when I do perform, I’m more relaxed, more open and I think my playing is the stronger for that.”

Audiences can judge for themselves when Rahman plays Aberdeen’s Blue Lamp on 10 March, as part of Aberdeen Jazz Festival. She’ll be back in her more customary trio setting, with drummer Gene Calderazzo and bassist Alec Dankworth, performing material from her trio of albums – original compositions and some classics – as well as solo spots.

Rahman is part of a festival programme which this year has been expanded from five to 11 days (8-18 March), thanks to additional funding from the city council and from the business development agency Aberdeen Inspired.

The festival features a deliberately strong strand of female performers, with the opening concert on 8 March – International Women’s Day – showcasing trumpeter and singer Georgina Jackson with Aberdeen Jazz Orchestra at the Blue Lamp, while Alison Affleck celebrates the Great American Songbook at the Carmelite Hotel. Other notable female guests include US saxophonist Camille Thurman and American pianist Myra Melfort with her Snowy Egret band.

Also on the festival bill are US saxophonists Andy Middleton and Scott Hamilton, as well as MOBO-winning Soweto Kinch and Scots luminaries Colin Steele, Graeme Stephen and Fergus McCreadie.

Ask Rahman whether she feels there should be more women in evidence on the jazz scene and she reckons there could always be more – “But there are certainly more than there used to be.”

She cites, for example, Scots saxophonist Laura MacDonald, with whom she’s worked in the past and who also makes an Aberdeen appearance; also the young saxophonist Helena Kay, a former BBC Young Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year and recipient of last year’s Peter Whittingham Jazz Award for which Rahman was one of the judges.

“Women are no longer confined to the role of vocalist,” says Rahman, “although there’s definitely still a perception that needs to change. But we’re moving in the right direction.”

This weekend, meanwhile, offers its own jazz riches, with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra renewing its creative acquaintance with pianist Makoto Ozone at Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall tonight and at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow, tomorrow. Having pulled off a scintillating reinvention of Mozart’s Ninth piano concerto, this time around they’re turning their attention to two well-loved classical showpieces, Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals and Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, both rearranged by SNJO director Tommy Smith and Ozone, with the latter piece featuring a new Scots narration commissioned from Liz Lochhead and read by Tam Dean Burn.

And as part of the “Going Dutch” initiative to bring jazz artists from the Netherlands to the UK, you can hear the intriguingly ethereal improvisations of drummer Joost Lijbaart’s Under the Surface trio tonight at Glasgow’s newly opened jazz venue, the Blue Arrow, in Sauchiehall Street.

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