It was not the kind of evening to encourage setting foot outside. There had been a moderate version of what the Americans call an ice storm: rain falling for most of the day and freezing on the ground. Roads and pavements were sheets of ice and there were icicles hanging on the car.
But we persevered, heading for what is becoming Liverpool’s best jazz venue, the Capstone Theatre, to see the Zoe Rahman Quartet on their Kindred Spirits tour. The band had made it over the Snake Pass from Sheffield before the snow came down, and we were treated to a great evening’s jazz, relaxed and spontaneous.
We’d previously seen pianist Zoe Rahman at the same venue last year with Courtney Pine on the Europa tour, and as a member of the ensemble that performed Way to Blue: the songs of Nick Drake. I think a radio broadcast or CD review had led me to the fine album Where Rivers Meet on which she and her clarinettist brother Idris explored their Bengali roots.
Mistakenly, I took that to be her first album; it turns out that it was the fourth. Now she has released her fifth album Kindred Spirits which takes the exploration of her family roots further, blending elements of a combined English, Irish and Bengali heritage. As All About Jazz expressed it in their review of the album:
Holy soul food, Batman! It feels good to listen to a musician who plays from the heart rather than the brain. Not that British pianist Zoe Rahman is deficient in the grey stuff or technique. She studied music at Oxford University, the Royal Academy of Music and Berklee; once, twice, three times an alumnus. But when Rahman is seated at the keyboard, and her band kicks in, it is her exuberant spirit that she channels, not her learning. That, anyway, is how it sounds. Kindred Spirits, recorded in spring 2011, is Rahman’s fifth album, and like its predecessors it makes the world seem, for a precious while, a better place. [...] It all adds up to another bliss infusion.
The Quartet features her brother Idris on clarinet alongside her regular jazz trio partners Gene Calderazzo on drums and Davide Mantovani on bass. They kicked off with Abdullah Ibrahim’s ‘Cherry’ before exploring numbers from the new album – ‘Down To Earth’, ‘Maya’ (written for a one year-old neice), and a sequence in which an Irish melody ‘Go Where Glory Waits Thee’ adapted by the great Bengali composer and poet Rabindranath Tagore as the tune ‘Mana Na Manili’ segued into another Tagore song, ‘My Heart Dances like A Peacock, It Dances’ before the quartet stormed into another traditional Irish tune, ‘Butlers of Glen Avenue’.
Zoe and Idris were born in Chichester to a Bengali father and English mother. In the Kindred Spirits CD notes, Zoe explains:
We recorded this album after touring Ireland in 2011, a year that happened to coincide with the 150 th birth anniversary of Bengali writer, musician, artist and Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore. These two events account, in part, for my choice of music. Mostly though, it’s a collection of my own compositions from the past couple of years and tunes that I love playing.
From my experience of visiting my father’s extensive family in Dhaka, usic plays a huge part in the lives of Bengalis. At family gatherings, a harmonium seems to be produced at any opportunity, everyone taking it in turn to sing (more often than not Tagore songs). The music sessions we were lucky enough to experience in the pubs around ireland very much reminded me of that tradition, and the love of music.
In the second set, Zoe introduced the number ‘Conversation With Nellie’ as being inspired by her Irish grandmother: ‘I’d always been curious about my grandmother’s Irish roots, and this track was inspired by talking with her, and by the experience of touring Ireland’.
The second set began with Stevie Wonder’s ‘Contusion’ before the band moved on to respond to requests they had received during the interval by playing two Bengali songs from Where Rivers Meet, and the beautiful ‘Muchhe Jaoa Dinguli (‘Past Days’) a lovely arrangement of a Bengali song by the renowned composer Hemant Mukherjee that featured haunting clarinet by Idris.
Throughout the evening, Zoe had introduced numbers from the piano with an easygoing manner, and there was a real sense of a band happy to play just as the mood took them, or what the audience asked for – sometimes not every member of the band having ever played the tune (forget the set list). This was apparent when they returned for the encore. About to start on an agreed number, someone shouted, ‘What’s the saxophone for?’ (indeed, a saxophone had been prominent, unplayed, throughout the show). It was there as an alternative for Idris, and now the band launched into a rousing, impromptu account of Duke Ellington’s ‘Amad’ from his Far East Suite.
Hot stuff! Outside it was freezing hard, and you had to watch yourself on the ice.