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Rachel Z, Blues Alley, Washington, D.C.

Rachel Z

When Brad Mehldau performed Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film)” on 1998’s The Art of the Trio, Vol. 3: Songs, the idea of a harmonically adroit jazz pianist interpreting alt-rock was novel with a hint of gimmickry. Fast-forward through Greg Osby and Jason Moran reading Björk, the Bad Plus’ revamps of rock-radio standards and Gold Sounds, Cyrus Chestnut’s stab at Pavement’s hipster classics, and it seems more an extension of a tradition than kitsch, and historically akin to boppers blowing over the show tunes they grew up with.

One oft-overlooked jazzer who’s long had ears for pop and rock is Rachel Z, who’s covered material by artists ranging from Alanis Morissette (1998’s smooth-jazz outing Love is the Power) to Joni Mitchell (2002’s album-long tribute Moon at the Window), Soundgarden (2004’s Everlasting) and Nirvana (2005’s Grace). During the second set at a recent stand at Blues Alley supporting their new Savoy release, the Z-led Dept. of Good and Evil with drummer Bobbie Rae and bassist Maeve Royce interpreted songs by Jeff Buckley, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Joy Division and Neil Young. These interpretations, mixed around originals and standards like Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge,” indicated an organic progression of the jazz repertory, of principles of swing and improvisation being applied to popular melodies. What wasn’t signified was the popular belief that jazz musicians who take to contemporary songs instantly attract hordes of youthful, collegiate fans. There were 16 people in the house at the beginning of this set, only one or two appearing under 30.

Z, born Rachel Nicolazzo, has suffered with critics due to smooth-jazz and fusion associations, unqualified vocals and a shticky gothic/new-age aesthetic. But she’s an advanced (though not always adventurous) postbop pianist when she chooses to be, with a strong stylistic reverence for Herbie Hancock and Bill Evans. And while she’s capable of turning harmonies inside out and running the changes in dizzyingly cerebral ways, she’s a sentimental melodist at heart, with a penchant for plucking sing-songy melodies and organizing simple secondary lines to accompany them.

Z is also an invigorating texturalist—she turned Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” into a Tyner-ish barnburner—with a band that shares her desire to import disparate styles and exclude the dissonant, postmodern chaos that becomes a crutch in these acoustic jazz-rock situations. (In other words, her interpretations exist squarely between the Bad Plus’ profoundly overhauled pop renditions and the strict, vocal-melody reflections of proto-smooth CTI and Blue Note records.) On Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine,” drummer Rae followed Z through dense polymetered sections book-ended by soul-inflected beats. (Rae’s “Saint of New Orleans” was a highlight of the originals portion of the set.) On Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart,” Z cleverly and ironically transformed melancholy post-punk into impressionistic postbop and then tango. It sounds cheap but it worked, bringing melodies to the forefront that were previously shrouded in Ian Curtis’ detached monotone. Jeff Buckley’s “Last Goodbye” was also refigured in tone, from a bittersweet torch song to a chipper American Songbook offering. The only cover that bored was one of Seal’s “Kiss From a Rose,” but that had more to do with the original’s ostentatious grandeur than Z’s lyrical rendition.

Originally Published