Rachel Z Shocks the Bunny

Mike Brannon By

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Ok, quick...name all the artists you can think of with a last name starting with Z. Moon, Dweezil, Ahmet...but they're all in the Zappa family, right? Ok, Zamfir, if you've really gotta go there. Well, now there's another worthy of that elusive 26th letter... pianist/keyboardist Rachel Niccolazzo or Rachel Z, for short.

Numbered among her many accomplishments, the Grammy award-winning artist has recorded and toured with Wayne Shorter, Steps Ahead and is now a fixture on Peter Gabriel's "Growing Up Live" tour 02/03.

Also, her trio's interpretations of Joni Mitchell on Moon at the Window has just been released and represents a new level of expression for the gifted pianist. Most will recognize the Mitchell standards, "Big Yellow Taxi", "Free Man", "Help Me" and "From Both Sides Now" through Rachel's darting Jarrettesque linear excursions. They are currently on tour promoting the CD.

Then April 15th she returns to the Peter Gabriel tour of Europe which extends through July 4th.

All About Jazz: The first time I ever saw you perform was with Steps Ahead. Must've been late 80's.

Rachel Z: Oh my God, where?

AAJ: At Nightstage in Boston. Do you remember that gig?

RZ: Yeah...uh huh...didn't we play in front of Lyle Mays?

AAJ: That's the weird thing...I was just going to get to that. I ended up sitting next to him at the bar.

RZ: Oh my God.

AAJ: And he was (eventually) kind of yelling your name a lot...

RZ: Really? (laughs)

AAJ: (laughs) He was pretty happy about the way you were playing, I guess. Did you study with him?

RZ: Well, I didn't really study with him but I followed him around (laughs).

AAJ: OK. That can probably qualify, right?

RZ: Yeah, it qualified, because I would follow him around to, like, the Pat Metheny Group...when I was in high school.

AAJ: So were you from Boston?

RZ: No, I'm from New York, but I met Lyle at Morris County College (laughs). I was playing in the wind ensemble (clarinet), but I was in high school. And Lyle was playing there....with the Pat Metheny Group. So, it was cool, 'cause it was like a 200-seater, so it was a great opportunity to see that band up really close.

AAJ: What was your experience with Mike Maineri and that group (Steps)? I mean, you were with them for quite awhile.

RZ: (laughs) There were a lot of experiences. It was like five years. But one thing l should tell you is he helped me get this gig with Peter Gabriel. So Mike pretty much has had a hand in every good thing that happened to me in my career...'cause he's so respected, that he helped me get into echelons that people might not just hire you off the street. Like Wayne Shorter hired me because he saw me with Mike at the North Sea Jazz festival. And then Peter called him to find out whether I could handle the gig.

AAJ: You just joined the Gabriel tour a couple of nights ago and you're in Chicago tonight. How's it going so far?

RZ: Yeah. We've been playing gigs since the end of August. Like I started August 12th and August 29th we had a gig. We've been rehearsing awhile. The only thing is now we have this production stuff which is a little bit challenging.

AAJ: In terms of what?

RZ: Well, he's doing stuff like "Walking Upsidedown". He's in a ball - singing. And it rolls around the stage; tries to kill us.

AAJ: (laughs) Logistics.

RZ: (laughs) and then the stage rotates. And there's this giant stage that goes up 30 feet and sometimes we go on it.

AAJ: That's got to take some getting used to. You probably didn't do that with Wayne, did you?

RZ: No we didn't do a lot of that...running around in his orb ball. We didn't do any of that (laughs).

AAJ: (laughs) yeah.

RZ: Of course we played, like, 3000 chords per square inch. That was like sort of internal running around (laughs).

AAJ: What gear are you bringing on the gig?

RZ: I'm using a Kurzweil 2600, complete with programmer from Kurzweil. His name is Jeff.

AAJ: You've just hit the bigtime.

RZ: Yeah (laughs). Really cool. He helped me make all the sounds for this tour. And then I'm also using a Korg Triton and l have a Korg Wavestation AD and a Korg O1W. I'ts pretty simple, really. And Peter has K2600.

AAJ: He's playing keys, too.

RZ: Yeah, he's got the same kind of rig.

AAJ: So do you do any kind of duets where you're playing a the same time?

RZ: Yeah. We're playing all of the show at the same time except when he's hanging upside-down, l think (laughs). Are you coming to the show?

AAJ: I'm actually in Texas, so probably not.

RZ: Oh man, we don't have any dates down there. San Diego...

AAJ: That doesn't make any sense. Why not Texas?

RZ: Truly weird, but maybe he'll come back for a second round.

AAJ: You studied with both Charlie Banacos and Richie Bierach.

RZ: Yeah, Banacos just showed me the ways to undo any kind of habits you've developed from studying in the music school mentality. Like with a typical ii-v-l pattern, he shows you how to take those ideas and think like Bird or think like Bud Powell. So turn it all upside-down and become yourself.

AAJ: Right. He does seem to bring individuality out of people.

RZ: Yeah. A lot of exercise in 12 keys. Painful.

AAJ: Ear training.

RZ: Yeah. The ear training thing is so great.

AAJ: I know. Its hard though.

RZ: lt's pretty hard. l spent hours in the Summer just laying in the sun doing that.

AAJ: I-IV-V-l and then guessing the tones.

RZ: Yeah. Mike Stern got up to 12 notes.

AAJ: Or 11 anyway. I think he got to the point where he was just naming the notes that weren't there, right? I think that's the way it went.

RZ: Oh right, wow. Yeah, l never got that far.

AAJ: Yeah, he's one of my favorite guitar players.

RZ: Yeah? Do you play guitar?

AAJ: Yeah. About 20 years.

RZ: Cool. And Richie Bierach, with him l had to transcribe solos from every era of piano starting with Lennie Tristano. And I studied Phineus Newborn with him. And then we went into modern guys. Also Wynton Kelly, Bud Powell, Bill Evans. Then I went from there to Chick and Herbie. And Jarrett.

AAJ: Yeah, I was going to say that I hear a lot of Jarrett in your playing on the most recent record ( Moon at the Window Tonecenter).

RZ: Yeah, probably 'cause the harmony is kind of like that, kind of open, folky harmony.

AAJ: Yeah, it sounds more like a little bit older Jarrett.

RZ: Like from "My Song" and stuff like that?

AAJ: Yeah, exactly. What else..."El Judicio", "Nude Ants" and those type things. One of my favorites is off that, "Memories of Tomorrow". I love that tune.

RZ: Yeah! Me too.

AAJ: Do you? Do you ever play it?

RZ: Yeah. I played that a lot in college. A lot, a lot, 'cause l really loved Lyle Mays.

AAJ: Yeah. You can hear the thread going through all those guys. He told me he plays that tune, too.

RZ: Yeah. Like the only thing is l got a lot darker, because I studied with Richie. And I got into Joanne Brackeen. So those guys I got really dark with, which was fun. But this record isn't really about darkness.

AAJ: It was just released a few months ago, wasn't it: Moon at the Window ?

RZ: Yeah. It was just kind of hard to figure out what kind of record to do right now, for these times, you know? And I figured l wanted to do something that people could understand and it seemed like a good time to do a tribute to Joni 'cause it seems like she's always feeling like these young folk singers are getting so much more attention than she is so we figured we'd give her some love (laughs), you know?

AAJ: Sure. Of course she's been around a long time and is still having a great impact on these people, whether they admit it or not.

RZ: Yeah, and they try to admit it but I think she's just sick of the industry, which is a little bit strange right now. I just don't know if this Brittany Spears thing is really doing anything good for us. Kind of making me work out a little harder, you know?

AAJ: (laughs). Well, I guess that's one upside.

RZ: (laughs) Yeah, that's the upside: keeps us women in shape. We've got to keep up with the competition over there. But seriously, Joni, she's really quite an influence on everybody. The songs are really cool so we spent a lot of time going through old records and trying to find stuff that would sound good with just piano. And the cool thing that I liked was stuff like "Carey" and "Big Yellow Taxi", you know. I was feeling that "My Song" vibe. And some people who don't know Keith Jarrett call it Vince Guaraldi.

AAJ: (laughs) Yeah, I know.

RZ: They say it kind of sounds like "Peanuts". Yeah, and I'm cool with that, too, 'cause I like him (laughs).

AAJ: Well, actually, now that you mention him, l can hear that, too.

RZ: Yeah. It was cute, anyway. And one thing that was really, really cool was when we did this show in the Barbicon Theater in London and people really loved it. And that was like I think the first time they ever really understood something I was doing. Because a lot of times l think these original songs, which are complex and weird, and are coming from Richie Beirach. They were really into it.

AAJ: A little bit more accessible maybe?

RZ: Yeah. So that was really fun.

AAJ: lt kind of reminded me of Herbie's New Standard a little bit. Was that a reference at all for you?

RZ: No not really, I never listened to that record. I know the A & R guy that came up with that idea.

AAJ: How did you come up with the arrangements for the new CD?

RZ: Well Bobby the drummer, he has a rock band and he sings and he's been in rock bands for years, like really heavy ones, like MDMA and Utah Saints. Pretty dark rock band. When he performs he's pretty wild like Hendrix but he doesn't play guitar, or like a black Mick Jagger. So he was really familiar with the pop forms but he was also in love with Elvin (Jones). So we would start playing and he would start playing like these Elvin grooves. it was different, it was like a new thing for him so he came up with a lot of these odd time changes. I was trying to make a more straight ahead record and he's like, 'no, we have to metrically modulate' and I was like, 'wait a minute...where did you learn that? you're supposed to be a pop musician' (laughs). So we just played them every day until we came up with these cool arrangements. And then the bassist (Patricia Des Lauriers) flew down from Montreal every weekend, 'cause she was doing a TV show up there and she helped us with the arrangements and then she wrote the one for "Circle Game", she wrote that herself in 5, which was like 'oh, great'. Just what l need. I can't count to five (laughs). But it had this cool Pat Metheny Group vibe, you know? And its funny that you mention that because I love the white album (first PMG recording).

AAJ: Oh, that album just changed my life.

RZ: Me too!

AAJ: 1979 I think, l picked up a used copy, it was already in the used bin.

RZ: Oh, wow.

AAJ: And it just blew me away. I mean, nothing's ever been the same. ls he like a really huge influence on you?

RZ: Yeah, I'd say so. But I sort of got more into straight ahead jazz at the same time. Like I went to the New England Conservatory and Fred Hersh yelled at me to learn at least 200 standards in 12 keys and then Charlie, you know (laughs). So l had to become well versed in the jazz vocabulary. I had nothing but time in college. I practiced 12 hours a day. I was a total dork.

AAJ: But it just burns you out and you have no social life.

RZ: Yeah. Nobody liked me. And they still don't.

AAJ: Oh, that's not true.

RZ: (laughs) l have no friends.

AAJ: You actually have some pretty good friends from looking at your website! I think I'd trade with you.

RZ: (laughs) Yeah, they did some good stuff, huh?

AAJ: Yeah. Its really cool. Well, when you were at NEC you were working with people like Bob Moses and George Garzone and Miroslav (Vitous).

RZ: No, that was pretty cool. Bob Moses is a master. Bob Moses played in my first trio. And you know why...because he was in Pat Metheny's first band! Yeah, he's on Bright Sized Life.

AAJ: Pat would always say that band was so much better than on Bright Sized Life. Like they were more subdued (on record). Like if you've ever read Jaco's biography ( JACO: The Extraordinary Life And Times Of Jaco Pastorius (Miller Freeman Books, 1995) they talk about how different those gigs were live (from the record).

RZ: Oh, man. That band was just killer! So l had to have Bob Moses in my first band. And he did my demo.

AAJ: Who played bass?

RZ: Bruno Raburg, a really good bassist in Boston who teaches at Berklee. And I did a concert within the last year with Kenwood Dennard. But we gave all the money to Bob. It was a Ryles every Wednesday gig. Well, it was the only way we could get him to play with us. We used to call it 'pay to play', you know. We'd get all these heavy guys and we'd pay them all the money. Like one time we had Randy Brecker come up from New York. We paid him all the door money which was about 700 bucks. And then it helped me later when Mike Maineri - I sent him a demo tape and he called Randy Brecker to see if I could play. And Randy said, 'yeah'. So it was funny.

AAJ: That's cool. I guess you're always paying dues one way or another.

RZ: Yeah, that's for sure. Except now, I can't think of any way that I'm paying dues. At least for a few months (laughs). I'm sure when I get back to New York I'll be paying some dues again. But the biggest thing that happens in New York is it rains on your gig.

AAJ: Well, now you've got connections every which way with the Gabriel thing.

RZ: This show is a trip because we have all this production. And also just hearing Peter sing. Awesome.

AAJ: So what'll you do after this tour is over?

RZ: We're going to go everywhere. (promoting "Moon at the Window"). Its hitting the streets in February.

AAJ: Hopefully Texas, too.

RZ: Yeah, I would love to come down there. Its so far though.

AAJ: Well, depends on where you are, l guess.

RZ: I've played at Deep Ellum.

AAJ: Yeah, in Dallas.

RZ: And Houston with Al Dimeola. But we're going to get out with the trio and do an extended tour and right now we're doing an in store...J&R Music World this week.

AAJ: When you were with Shorter, can you describe what that was like for you and what he wanted from you?

RZ: That was amazing. That was like music camp. 'Cause I love chords and he was just all about the chords. All different harmonic structures that were just really, really beautiful.

AAJ: How would you describe the chords...were they just like certain types of voicings he liked?

RZ: Yeah. Certain big, orchestral voicings. Like minor 6ths, say, Bmb6?

AAJ: Like a modal voicing.

RZ: Yeah.

AAJ: So did he change your perspective in any way or get you to do anything you hadn't?

RZ: Yeah, because at that time in jazz, when I was working with him, Wynton was really big. And he was talking about, like, 'you must adhere to these ideas of jazz'. And Wayne was saying, 'you must not adhere to any ideas of jazz' (laughs), that you must go for total imagination and creativity. And he liked to use synthesizers and weird sounds. I wish I had the programmer now that I had with Wayne.

AAJ: Are you going to be on Peter's next recording?

RZ: I think its done already. He did two in a row.

AAJ: He's got an incredible studio.

RZ: Yeah, its really beautiful. Really, really nice. I would say that he and Wayne have a lot of similarities. Wayne's really into open voicings and so is Peter. He's really into melody and so is Peter and he's really into a certain sound on the saxophone which reminds me of Peter's voice; a lot of warmth and a lot overtones. and the way that they phrase is a lot about talking rather than singing a stiff kind of melody. And that was something that Joni does, too, so we had to try to do that on the record, to get that phrasing right. That's what I liked a lot about the songs that we did, like "Chinese Cafe" and "Both Sides Now". We did a reharm of it and l think that that was the hippest thing on the record. "Both Sides Now", those are all Waynish chords. They're all flat 6ths. We call them 'mom over dads', (laughs) you know, like Db over G.

AAJ: (laughs) I wont even ask how that happened. I think we just called them hybrids. l think that was a Berklee thing.

RZ: You went to Berklee?

AAJ: Yeah, and then studied with Charlie for about five years.

RZ: I can't believe it. You're probably like the only writer in the whole business that actually has been brutalized by Charlie Banacos.

AAJ: (laughs) Well maybe, but actually l'm pretty much a musician who does this on the side, since I enjoy it. You also mention Joni's odd tunings and how that influenced you; made the songs easier to expand on improvisationally. How has that affected your choices?

RZ: It's the way she tunes it—it leads her to have open voicings with 2nds. And I don't really know exactly on guitar what it is she's doing, but it sounds pretty weird. I'd say "Chinese Cafe" and "River' and "All I Want"...she did some weird tunings and it just leaves you going, 'what is that chord'? Even if you listen a million times. And then there's some weird ways she moves the harmonies. Like when she sings, 'we love our freedom', that phrase has some weird chords, so I made them weirder (laughs).

AAJ: (laughs) Of course, because you can. You've got more room to do that.

RZ: Yeah, and "Big Yellow Taxi", every time we just added more ll-lV-l's. And sometimes I just felt like playing over jazz changes, like "Ladies Man" we added "Giant Steps". And we added "Confirmation" in Db on "All I Want".

AAJ: Pat does a lot of open voicings. Did you ever check out "Shadows and Light", that tour with Joni, Pat, Brecker, Lyle and Jaco?

RZ: Yeah, that's amazing. See, that's something that I wanted to say about the open voicings or odd tunings. Someone like Pat Metheny or Mike Stern can play all those weird voicings. And of course the father of it all, Mick Goodrick. Those guys can physically handle it. But Joni's tunes don't sound right unless they have those open tunings, so she came upon a thing that was really cool.

AAJ: Yeah, I'm sure that's what she was hearing in her head and by one way or another she was going to get it out. So that's really part of her voice.

RZ: Mmhm. I guess it would be similar to a choice of a mouthpiece. Like when l was with Wayne he had, like, fifty mouthpieces on the table. He was trying to figure out which one to use.

AAJ: Did you guys do contemporary stuff or any of the old Bluenote stuff?

RZ: We did "Footprints" and we did this massive reharm. Like every chord was reharmed. It was really crazy. It was so deep. We never put it on the record. We played "Virgo Rising", "Children of the Night" - all these arrangements. Nothing sounded good after playing with Wayne. His stuff was so sweet. But then I got over that when I started listening to Smashing Pumpkins and Nine Inch Nails. It was a cool stage to go to after Wayne.

AAJ: In your bio you refer to the experience and meaning of love, and its many sides and how it reflects its meaning in your music relative to hers. You mention specific quotes, "to treasure life and the love of your life" and to "put family first or lose it". It's really good to see that rather than musicians just talking about music, but things that are actually more important than music or anything that we may do with our lives.

RZ: I think its how you treat people...especially the ones close to you that you're mad at all the time (laughs). I mean, just because you live with the same person; its just so important to figure that one out. Because you know how musicians, we can just slam the door and go practice. I don't think its healthy. They end up alone and they're sad. And we all have to learn it. l think sometimes we're afraid of it. But in that song, "River", she said, "I made my baby cry, l made my baby say goodbye".

AAJ: That's a torturous line.

RZ: Oh. Yeah. Brutal, right?

AAJ: Everybody's been through that and it never gets easier.

RZ: Yeah. But then she said, "Is it possible to care and not care?". That's an interesting line, because l think she means detach at the times where - sometimes people go through stuff. And when we're young we'll just blow them off but when we're older we need to learn how to go through things with people, through their own personal problems, like our parents. My parents have been married, maybe, almost fifty years so they go through a lot of times when the other one is rejecting the other, or crabby, and our generation is, like, 'ok, see ya, you're not giving me what l want'. And people also suffer financially. Some musicians are paying for two homes.

AAJ: I think people don't know how hard it is to be a musician. They think it's the greatest ride all the way around and it can be harder than people can ever imagine.

RZ: Yeah, like when you're out on the road they think you're just out having fun but you're coming back to an empty hotel room.

AAJ: Yeah, and who knows what you're coming back to at home.

RZ: They're mad or whatever. It's really difficult to maintain friendships. For me, that's a stage that I'm at because l got over myself enough, anyway, to realize practicing 12 hours a day and being able to feel superior, you know (laughs)? There's a cover-up. You know, in jazz we all want to be so full of chops and like can handle it all, but then ultimately what are you saying with all those notes?

AAJ: It doesn't mean anything unless you're saying something and that's the only way you can say it.

RZ: Yeah. So l hope for me, my development is personal and that will just make my music better.

AAJ: I think that may be actually one of the most difficult challenges there is. To find out who you are, musically and then get that out. Because there's so many other things that we're attracted to - the Wayne Shorter's and Miles and 'Trane - and we'd all like to gravitate towards these different camps.

RZ: And it takes a long time to master those styles.

AAJ: Yeah, it does. But you almost have to avoid that danger of absorbing too much and become typecast and become basically a disciple and not become what you could've become or should've become. They could only copied so much and weren't going to become icons if they had just followed one person, like Bud Powell or Bird. But they had to follow their voice. We should all be so lucky.

RZ: (laughs) Yeah, but if you really listen that voice is there. I think there's so much loud stuff. Like right now I'm looking out the window, there's a Border's, a Filene's basement and a Marshall Fields and a Walgreens Pharmacy. l hear some trumpet and there's a Neiman Marcus and a Saks.

AAJ: Ok. (laughs)

RZ: l'd like to work on some financial planning for musicians. It's hard to organize any part of your life.

AAJ: The little money you come into is probably going to go into equipment or something.

RZ: Mmhm (laughs). Like, for example, you go on the road, you're lonely so instead you drink. I'm just in a weird stage. Like l usually talk to my fianc' and I'm trying to stabilize my finances and also write lyrics for this thing. This time I hired a marketing director. He's amazing, he's second in command at HMV records. Bob Williams. He tracks how many units are where, he inspires people to do things. With jazz musicians they pretty much don't think you're going to sell any anyway. And we're hoping to have a record company someday. So dealing with somebody like that pushes you to pay attention to your career. And also thinking about Peter's music. I have a lot of work in the band. He's got a lot of chord changes and I'm singing backups and dancing. It's so good.

AAJ: Well I really do appreciate this. I had a good time.

RZ: Oh man, thank you. Me too. It's great when it's a musician. And hopefully we'll see you on this tour somehow, or try to get to SA. Alright, Mike.

Related Article
Rachel Z interview (2000)

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