10 Questions With… Zoe Rahman

10 Questions With… A series that delves into fresh new releases from some of our favourite artists. With a focus on our Melodic Distraction hosts and wider community, this lil natter gives us an insight into their musical escapades when they’re in their studio, not ours. 

Liverpool Jazz Festival returns this month and to celebrate, we chat with one of the magnificent performers on the bill, Zoe Rahman! Marking Milap’s first live event with an audience in over two years, jazz pianist/composer Zoe Rahman will play with her brother, Idris Rahman on clarinet, and British Bengali vocalist Sohini Alam at The Capstone Theatre on Saturday 26th February. Ahead of what will surely be a spell-binding performance, we sit down with Zoe to find out more about her musical heritage, winning an Ivor Novello Award and much more…

Hi Zoe! We’re really excited for your upcoming show with brother Idris Rahman and British Bengali vocalist Sohini Alam as part of Liverpool International Jazz Festival. How did you first get into music?

I grew up in a musical household – my siblings all played music and my parents used to take us to lots of different musical and artistic events in Chichester, where I grew up. They bought a piano for us for £10 not thinking we’d do anything with it, but then my older sister had piano lessons and we all followed in her footsteps. I started playing jazz when I was a teenager, my brother and I used to try and learn music by people like Miles Davis, Horace Silver and Herbie Hancock. 

Would you say your British/Bengali heritage has an influence on the music you make? If so, how? 

Since I was a teenager I’ve always loved jazz, so my playing and composing reflects that. My Dad was Bengali but when we were younger he didn’t really play us any Bengali music – he used to listen to it on cassette on his own. I didn’t know any other Bengali people growing up as my family were all in Dhaka, Bangladesh – I first went there when I was 15 and heard my family singing Tagore at family gatherings. Many years later, my Dad was ill in hospital and I wanted him to have some music to listen to, so I transferred all his worn out tapes onto cd for him – that’s when I heard the music he’d been listening to his whole life. It had a deep connection with me – I didn’t really understand the lyrics, but the emotion completely drew me in. My brother and I made an album in 2008 called ‘Where Rivers Meet’. It was a collection of my Dad’s favourite tunes and music we’d heard our cousins singing, as well as music we’d been taught by other Bengali musicians. 


Having previously worked with the likes of George Mraz, Courtney Pine and Orchestra, what’s the most valuable thing you get out of collaborating?

I love learning from other musicians on the bandstand – how they connect with the audience, how they improvise, the energy they bring to a performance and how their life experience informs everything they do musically. My playing changes and develops when I collaborate with others and that’s invaluable.

Having played across the UK, USA, Japan, Australia and more! What’s been your favourite show to date? Dream venue to perform at? 

I’ve been lucky enough to have traveled all over the world as a musician, and have played some amazing gigs. Playing in Dhaka with my brother was a highlight, looking out to see my family taking up the front two rows of our gig and hearing people singing the tunes was an emotional experience! You mentioned Australia – playing at Sydney Opera House was a magical experience – I could see the Sydney Harbor Bridge from my dressing room! I got to do a duo piece with the incredible bass player Danny Thompson, and the acoustics of the venue were unbelievable. Playing at Dizzy’s Jazz Club in New York with my trio was also a career highlight as a jazz musician.

What do you enjoy the most about performing live?

I love the connection I have with the audience and being able to take people on a musical and emotional journey, giving them space to be able to dream for a while.

Congratulations on winning an Ivor Novello Award at the Ivors Composer Awards 2021! Do you have any advice for any fellow women trying to navigate their jazz scene? 

Thank you! It’s not been an easy career choice for me as a female jazz instrumentalist/composer but it’s what I want to do, it’s what I love. In my acceptance speech I dedicated my Ivor Novello award to all the female jazz composers out there who continue to inspire me. I think there’s a lot more support these days for female jazz musicians coming through, but there’s still a long way to go – in all areas of society – before we find true equality. In terms of advice – well, there are lots of things that I’ve learnt the hard way over the years. What always keeps me going is just focussing on the beauty and joy of the music.

Are there any up and coming artists in the UK jazz scene you’ve got on your radar at the moment?

There are lots of good musicians out there – the drummer Jas Kayser sounds great. 

What instruments can you play? 

Other than piano, I played a few different instruments when I was younger – flute, recorder, classical guitar… I have some tabla and had a few lessons, but that’s about the extent of my knowledge. I get my guitar and ukulele out sometimes and jam with my kids. I love playing electric bass (very basic!) and I’m a closet drummer! My son plays drums, so I use it as an excuse to learn with him.

What was the last record you bought? 

Honestly… the soundtrack to the film Madagascar for my kids! My house is full of cds/tapes/vinyl, so I have to rein it in a bit with buying music. Next on my list is Jarrod Lawson’s latest album (I forgot to buy it in person when I saw him at the Jazz Cafe last year).

What’s next for you? 

I’ve got music ready for a new album, I just need to work out the practicalities of recording it and getting it out there! I also have arrangements for a 10-piece ensemble, so I’m trying to find a way of presenting that. I’ve got a few exciting gigs coming up this year too – Cheltenham Jazz Festival with my quintet, the National Jazz Archive in Southend for International Women’s Day, and I’m really looking forward to playing in Liverpool with my brother Idris on clarinet and vocalist Sohini Alam. We’ve known Sohini for 16 years but we’ve never actually done a gig together, so it’s lovely to have an opportunity to collaborate. We’re going to be doing trio versions of some of Sohini’s music from her band Khiyo, as well as arrangements of some Tagore, Nazrul and Hemant Mukherjee – all with a jazz perspective!

Zoe will be joining Josh Aitman on his Moving Through Music show this Wednesday (23rd), 12:00 – 14:00. Be sure to lock in and in the meantime, get your ticket for Zoe and Idris Rahman with Sohini Alam here and find out more about Liverpool International Jazz Festival here