Saxophonist, flautist, bandleader and composer, that is a big ask of anyone, and incredible when one is still in their early twenties. Proving that age is no barrier to creativity, Emma Rawicz made waves with her debut album Incantation released last year and is set to make an even greater impression with her latest release Chroma featuring a new band and seven new compositions.
It was therefore great to have the opportunity to catch up with Emma and talk to her about the new album and the concept behind the music.
Your new album Chroma is packed with fresh and interesting compositions. Can you tell us about the album and the concept behind the music?
The album Chroma is a new step for me. I think that it is a development from my debut album Incantation both in terms of my compositions and my playing. The compositions which feature on Chroma were written with a group of amazing musicians in mind, including Ivo Neame, Asaf Sirkis, Ant Law, Conor Chaplin and Immy Churchill.
The concept behind the music is all based on colour. I have synaesthesia which means that, for me, there is a relationship between music and colour, and I decided to focus on that and see what happened when composing the music for the album.
I often find when I’m playing music with fantastic musicians, such as those in my band, that the music that we are playing has a context for me in terms of colour within my mind. So, I thought it would be an interesting experiment to try and write music based on colours and this is essentially what the album is.
I’m sorting of flipping the process on its head and trying to write music inspired by colour rather than hearing/seeing colour as a result of the music that I am hearing.
The album was recorded just twelve months after your debut Incantation, but your music seems to have evolved significantly in that time. How do you perceive that your music has developed in the year between recordings?
To be honest I feel like my music is evolving all the time – even within the process of writing Chroma and that is just seven compositions.
One of the most significant factors has been that, prior to recording the album, I played this music on lots of gigs with both the musicians that feature on the album as well as many other great musicians.
The music has developed as we have played it, and the gigging process has certainly contributed to the identity of the music as a whole.
Guitarist Ant Law is the only musician retained from your debut album. Was this a conscious decision to bring together a new group, and was the music written with these musicians in mind?
It was definitely a conscious decision to bring a new group of people together for this album. I was at a point where I felt I had come to the end of the one project, in terms of recording my debut album Incantation, so it felt like a great time to step out into slightly less familiar territory and put together what I thought of as my dream band.
Amazingly all the musicians that I wanted to play with were available, we rehearsed and played the Chroma music at that first gig, and I’ve had the pleasure of working with them ever since. I decided to keep Ant Law in the group, because I feel I have a real musical rapport with him, having played together for a number of years.
I also knew that he had a great musical relationship with many of the other musicians in the band, so it seemed like an obvious decision.
Another notable change is that you have decided to hand over vocal duties to Immy Churchill rather than continuing to fill that role yourself. Again, a deliberate move I assume with the vocals playing such an important role in the new compositions?
To be honest when it comes to my vocals on Incantation, it was not something I planned originally. When we were in the studio recording Incantation, listening to our initial recordings I realised that a lot of the music had a vocal quality to it that I thought might be highlighted nicely by adding wordless voice.
I realised this when we were already in the studio and as I hadn’t booked a vocalist I decided to do it myself, which was fun. However, I wouldn’t consider myself a vocalist really and I know many fantastic musicians who dedicate themselves to being amazing vocalists.
Immy Churchill is one of those people and I think she has a really distinctive and beautiful voice. I thought specifically about her sound when I wrote some of the tracks on Chroma and I am really pleased with the finished tracks.
The use of the bass clarinet is also an important new addition to the music, colouring the ensemble in a very different light. How do you go about choosing which instruments to play? Do you approach each composition with a specific instrument in mind or is the process more organic as the composition reveals itself?
As far as I am concerned the bass clarinet is a beautiful instrument and it’s one that I had had an ambition to explore and play for a while. At the time of recording Incantation I didn’t own or have access to a bass clarinet but in the interim period between recording Incantation and Chroma I managed to get hold of bass clarinet and started making it a part of my repertoire.
I find that the sound and range of different instruments such as flute, the various saxophones, bass clarinet etc, really inspire me and encourage me to write in different ways.
I find the process of selecting the specific instrument for each composition a fairly natural one and it’s something that can be further tried out and experimented with in rehearsals.
Growing up in North Devon opportunities to play must have been quite different. Your first instruments were piano and violin, so how did you get into learning to play and what eventually drew you to the saxophone?
From a young age I have always known that I loved music and wanted to play an instrument. I ended up playing the violin at a young age as there weren’t really many other options at my first school. I really loved playing it and it opened up the door to playing in ensembles with other musicians, such as in youth orchestras etc.
I believe the first time I heard a saxophone I was around 12 years old, and it was at a concert being given by an amateur big band – I was struck by the amazing sound the instrument made and knew that it was something I wanted to try out for myself but it took a little bit of time to get there!
How did you become interested in jazz, and who would you say have influenced you as a saxophonist?
I became interested in jazz because of an amazing saxophonist called Mark Lockheart – I first met him at a summer school – Dartington International Summer School – in an improvisation workshop.
This was before I really played any jazz at all, we were having a listening session and I remember hearing ‘No More Blues’ by Joe Henderson, and from that moment on, I knew that I really wanted to investigate this music.
The album from which that track comes is called Double Rainbow and remains a real influence that still inspires me.
Do you find as a jazz musician that when listening for pleasure that you tend to listen to other genres? For example, what is currently on your listening playlist?
When listening to music purely for pleasure I listen to a wide variety of genres. There is plenty of music within the jazz genre that I really love and listen to for pleasure, but I certainly do like to explore different music.
At the moment I’m listening to a lot of Steely Dan, and also to some singer songwriter music such as that of Joni Mitchell and Gabriel Kahane. In terms of jazz one of my favourites at the moment is Blue Note album Juju by Wayne Shorter.
Moving forward, how to you envisage your music developing? Do you have specific plans and projects that you would like to bring to fruition, or is it more a case of letting this happen naturally?
I’m always writing music and thinking about future projects, and I like to have lots of different projects at various stages. I have music written for, what I hope, will be my next album or two after Chroma.
Also, I’ve recently formed the Emma Rawicz Jazz Orchestra – it’s a big band that plays my own compositions and arrangements.