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Rachel Z goes her own way

The pianist takes pop songs and heads in entirely new directions at the Jazz Bakery.

March 23, 2007|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Jazz pianist Rachel Z didn't waste any time identifying her current musical orientation Wednesday night at the Jazz Bakery. Her trio's opening tune was Death Cab for Cutie's "Soul Meets Body."

Pop songs have been essential elements in the jazz repertoire since the early days of New Orleans jazz, of course, but the bulk of those tunes usually have come from the Gershwin, Porter, Berlin, et al. items in the Great American Songbook. But Z, who uses only an initial as a professional surname -- her full surname is Nicolazzo -- avoided the standards, emphasizing material from her newest album, "Dept. of Good and Evil."

She was most effective with the jazz potential of Sting's "King of Pain," opening with a rhapsodic solo before moving into a gently floating groove. Other offbeat selections -- Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb," the Church's "Under the Milky Way," Alice in Chains' "Angry Chair" -- were transformed into renderings that were stylistic light years from their original sources.

Further illustrating her eclectic musical tendencies, Z played "E.S.P." by Wayne Shorter, enhancing it with a solo in which light and space contrasted with urgent bursts of melody. And an even more unlikely choice -- a theme from Delibes' opera "Lakme" -- surfaced as a framework for a solo from bassist Maeze Royle with energetic support from drummer Bobby Rae.

Although Z's desire to expand her repertoire of source material is admirable, her performance stimulated pertinent questions. The first was whether these tunes could provide sufficient springboard for her sophisticated improvisational imagination. For the most part, they did not. In some cases, Z might as well have been soloing freely, given the virtually nonexistent influence of the original tunes on her otherwise compelling improvisations.

The second question involves who these renderings will reach. Most jazz listeners are utterly unfamiliar with the originals; and it's unlikely that fans of the originals will have much interest in jazz variations that depart dramatically from the tunes they know and love.

Most important of all, there was the sense that Z's piano work, with its marvelous combination of air, flow and rhythm, tended to be unnecessarily shadowed by the busyness of material that can't compare with the fascination of her own playing.

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