Close-up: Zoe Rahman
After blowing away the pop world, the pianist is turning to Bollywood
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Two years ago, on a Mercury Music Prize shortlist that included Arctic Monkeys, Radiohead's Thom Yorke and Muse, the pianist Zoe Rahman damn near stole the show. "It was all a bit surreal," she admits of Yorke praising her fiery, rumbling brand of modern jazz, and Muse declaring her performance "bloody amazing".
The 37-year-old's latest project sees her explore her south Asian heritage. Born in Chichester to a white mother (a GP from Yorkshire) and Bengali father (a teacher from Dhaka), Rahman's upbringing was "entirely English. There were no other brown faces. Now I want to go back to my Bengali roots."
For her new album, Where Rivers Meet, she works her way through a range of Bengali songs her dad used to sing at home, including hits from the 1950s by the Bollywood singer Hemanta Mukherjee and material by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore.
Rahman studied music at Oxford University and the Royal Academy, but believes jazz should be self-taught. "It's about listening to records and learning on the job." She has certainly learnt a lot from playing alongside performers such as Palestinian singer Reem Kelani, erstwhile Specials frontman Terry Hall and South African township jive outfit The Soothsayers. But her trademark style – a dazzling mix of cascading chords and percussive soloing – remains distinctive in every setting. "A lot of my music is about texture, playing rhythmically and creating an atmosphere. Luckily it works in lots of contexts."
'Where Rivers Meet' is released on 22 September. Rahman's national tour starts on 9 October, including a date at London's Purcell Room on 4 November
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