She describes the all-day practice routine of her teenage years as "pretty dorky," but pianist Rachel Nicolazzo--better known as Rachel Z--has seen her share of celebrity as an adult. Her keyboard programming contributed significantly to Wayne Shorter's Grammy-winning 1995 album High Life--which New York Times critic Peter Watrous used to dismiss the entire fusion genre on the cover of the Sunday arts section. After two years on the road with Shorter, she released a smooth-jazz album, Love Is the Power, under her own name--and subsequently landed on the cover of the February 1999 issue of Jazziz, for which she'd written a piece called "Confessions of a Girl Gone Smooth." The media flap failed to translate into record sales, though, and Z has since said that the entire project, a misguided shot at commercial success, conflicted with her better instincts. So she promptly returned to what really interested her: the music of her mentor, Wayne Shorter. Her brand-new On the Milky Way Express (Tone Center) consists entirely of his tunes, some in versions reflecting the musical dicta Z picked up from Shorter on the High Life tour and others benefiting from her own subtle changes. The album features the same all-female, all-acoustic trio she brings to Chicago, a band that likes to display what Z calls its "feminine side"--by which she means an improvising aesthetic where balance trumps fireworks. Z, bassist Miriam Sullivan, and drummer Allison Miller often seem to breathe in sync; they build excitement together, from within each arrangement, instead of relying on one person to get out and push. This approach perfectly suits Shorter's elliptical compositions--even the title track and "Three Marias," both later works debuted by electric bands, reveal hidden facets with the juice turned off. Friday, 9 PM, Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway; 773-878-5552.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tom LeGoff.