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.