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Rachel Z Shocks the Bunny

Mike Brannon By

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Ok, 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.


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