Rachel Z: Everlasting

Marshall Bowden

Rachel Z


Label: Tone Center
US Release Date: 2004-05-25
UK Release Date: Available as import

Rachel Nicolazzo, or Rachel Z, emerged in the 1990s as a talented "Young Lion" pianist. Having graduated from the New England Conservatory in 1984, she has studied with John Hicks, Richie Beirach, and JoAnne Brackeen and has toured with such performers as Wayne Shorter, Al DiMeola, and Lenny White. In addition, she was a member of the 1980s fusion band Steps Ahead and the Arsenio Hall Show band. Z also figured prominently on Wayne Shorter's 1995 album High Life, creating synthesizer orchestrations for Shorter's compositions and serving as musical director on the tour that followed. Most recently, she has toured as keyboardist with Peter Gabriel.

Her early solo recordings were a bit unfocused, with a combination of acoustic straight-ahead work and fusion. This approach worked fairly well on 1993's Trust the Universe and 1996's Room of One's Own, giving Rachel a contemporary edge, but firmly placing her as a solid jazz player. The same cannot be said 1998's disastrous GRP release, Love Is the Power. That recording threatened to carry the talented musician off into the neverland of smooth jazz. Fortunately, Z found a new approach (piano trio) and a new label (Tone Center) that would allow her to focus on her acoustic work and show what she could do. Her first release for the label, On the Milky Way Express was a tribute to the compositional diversity of her old boss Wayne Shorter. Leading a supportive trio through a selection of Shorter's work, Rachel demonstrated that she was the real deal. In 2002, she released The Moon in the Window, a tribute to Joni Mitchell. While Z focused maybe a bit too much on Mitchell's earlier, major chord-folky material rather than the later, jazz-influenced work, the album managed to do justice to both Mitchell's songwriting and Z's impressive talent.

On Everlasting the approach is once again to take contemporary pop music and make it serve the purposes of a jazz piano trio. This time out she works with drummer Bobbie Rae, who also played on Moon at the Window, and bassist/Chapman Stick master Tony Levin, another member of Peter Gabriel's recording and touring group. Levin adds a lot to this disc with his solid yet elastic sense of time, and Rae is a welcome return, creating an ongoing dialogue with Rachel and Levin.

Nicolazzo's choice of material is nearly unerring in terms of allowing her to display the best features of her playing. Following the same concept as the Bad Plus and singers like Cassandra Wilson, the pianist takes her repertoire from a spate of '80s and '90s pop songs, along with versions of the Stones' "Wild Horses" and the timeless "Ring of Fire", made famous by Johnny Cash. In Rachel's hands, the songs become fodder for her explorations of post-modern piano jazz, often resembling their original versions very little. Take the opener, a version of George Harrison's "Here Comes the Sun" that explodes forth with a McCoy Tyner-like blast of modal power chording with a swingy, 6/8 feel. Underlying the melody with skeletal chord voicing in the keyboard's low range, the piece resembles John Coltrane's re-imagining of "My Favorite Things" until, a little over a minute in, it breaks into a swinging 4/4 for Rachel's solo, which is lighter and much more evocative of Bill Evans.

Though her style has its limits -- she relies heavily on healthy doses of Evans's impressionism, Keith Jarrett's earnest American gospel, and the wide-open chord voicings of a singer/songwriter -- she manages to balance the need of her audience to hear familiar melodies and song structures with her ability to play straight-ahead, complex jazz. Her touch is light and nuanced, never resorting to novelty or bombast. Some will see her as a populist performer, but ultimately her take on the piano trio is often more compelling and satisfying than the high-flying acrobatics of the Bad Plus.

Some of Rachel's material is better suited to her adaptations than other. "Ring of Fire" comes off as too mannered, even prissy, and the fast bebop of "Black Hole Sun" undercuts the natural majesty of its melody. But when she and her trio get it right, the results are wonderful. Steely Dan's "Kid Charlemagne" loses some of its nervous jitters and becomes a sultry, slinky tune, thanks in large part to the funky bass figure that Tony Levin invents to open the track. Rather than belabor the snappy, dissonant chords underlying the melody, Rachel finesses the whole thing, allowing the energy to come from the song's natural momentum and the push of drummer Bobbie Rae. King Crimson's "One Time", on which Levin played originally, has an introspective feel and is an excellent vehicle for Rachel's improvisations. And the album's closer, a version of Peter Gabriel's "Red Rain" is magnificent, exuding a quiet power that gets inside the listener. There are also two Interludes, the first one extensive, and a song, "Mortal" composed by Nicolazzo and Rae, which link some of the other material and provide proof that Rachel Z is not dependent on pop music to make her musical mark.

I'm sure many jazz aficionados and modern music fans will consider Rachel and Co.'s approach to be a bit too light to hold their attention, but understated does not necessarily translate to "light" music. Nicolazzo, Rae, and Levin are all accomplished musicians who play and interact well together. Rachel seems more interested in getting down and playing some piano than worrying about the semantics of musical labels, and that suits this listener just fine.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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