Emma Rawicz and Sophisticated Giants

Written by | Artists, Interviews, News, Women in Jazz Media

Women in Jazz Media presents ‘Maxine Gordon – Sophisticated Giants’, an evening of celebration of the inspirational work of award-winning Arts Advocate, Jazz Historian, Archivist, Scholar, Manager and Producer Maxine Gordon. A rare visit to the UK has sparked a wonderful opportunity to celebrate Maxine’s forthcoming book ‘Jazz Quartette’ with the music of Shirley Scott, Maxine Sullivan, Velma Middleton and Melba Liston performed by some of the UK’s leading jazz artists. The evening will also feature four of the most exciting saxophonists on the UK jazz scene today – Hannah Horton, Camilla George, Emma Rawicz and Tony Kofi paying tribute to Maxine’s award-winning book ‘Sophisticated Giant’ and her life with one of the world’s greatest saxophonists Dexter Gordon. It really is going to be a unique and very special night.

Saturday 4th June, 8.30pm, Jazz Café POSK. Tickets here

As the countdown to this unique and very special night continues, I have been catching up with award-winning young saxophonist and composer Emma Rawicz, ‘A force to be reckoned with’ according to Jazzwise.

Photo by Siobhan Bradshaw

Fast-rising star and new arrival on the scene, Emma has already made a name for herself playing major London jazz venues with a whole host of established musicians.  Her eagerly awaited debut album made up entirely of original compositions and featuring Ant Law was released earlier this month. Emma is a recipient of the 2021 Drake Yolanda Award. Her unique natural sound fuses many influences from modern jazz and fusion to folk and soul. It will be wonderful to hear how Emma interprets her selection of Dexter Gordon tracks on the night.

It was said by jazz club owner Todd Barkan that Dexter Gordon used his saxophone and his bands as an extension of his physical heart and soul, creating a universal language that touched people’s hearts through his music.

KC – How is it possible to express and communicate your heart and soul to an audience through an instrument?

ER – “I think it’s really difficult to quantify what it means to express your feelings through your instrument but I think it’s something that all of the greats were able to do.  Putting your heart and soul into your playing and really meaning it is the closest I can get to describing it but I think it will mean something different to each musician. For me the key is being honest and committed with what I play.”

KC – What Dexter Gordon tracks have you chosen to play on 4th June and what inspired your choices?

ER – “Firstly, ‘Love for Sale’.  It’s a great tune and there are so many great versions out there but Dexter’s ranks really highly for me. ‘Body and Soul’ is a ballad I’m a huge fan of. I think it’s really special. It’s one of the most recorded ballads so it has a great historical weight to it and is a real staple of the jazz repertoire. Finally, ‘3 O’Clock in the Morning’ features on the album ‘Go’ which I really got into during lockdown. I transcribed all the solos on the album! It’s a tune I really associate with Dexter Gordon.

Sonny Rollins was quoted as saying of Dexter Gordon and all the jazz greats of days past, “They’re all still here.” 

KC – All musicians leave a legacy in the form of their music, from which we can learn and take enjoyment. Which musicians of the past are still here for you?

ER – “John Coltrane would be my choice. He has such a lasting impact. I’d say that anyone that calls themselves a jazz musician is in some way influenced by Coltrane.  They will have listened to his music at some point and whether they know it or not will have absorbed something from him.  So many people are incredibly passionate about his music and I think he will continue to have huge influence for the foreseeable future.”

Dexter always said that some of the best musicians didn’t get big names or record deals and were overlooked.

KC – What are your thoughts on this?

Dexter and Cecil Taylor at the White House

ER – “I think it’s really common for musicians who have made a great impact to not actually get due recognition at the time. There are so many factors other than the quality of the art that they create that affect the audiences that the music reaches, and therefore the praise and recognition that the musician receives at that time. It’s something that has definitely happened in the past and will, I think, continue to happen because great art isn’t always understood and when it’s new and unique there’s often nothing to compare it to. There’s the fundamental issue of how do you market it to an audience, so it may not be ‘discovered’ until much later and not receive the recognition it deserves when initially created and performed.”

In the era of 78RPM recordings, a track was limited to around 3 minutes duration in which the musicians could tell their story.

KC – Having just released your debut album ‘Incantation’ how would you feel if all your recordings had been limited to 3 minutes?

ER – “I think recordings having a time limit is not necessarily a bad thing, sometimes it can force you to be more concise with your ideas and in some ways that can require more creativity but I think I may struggle with it as it’s not limitation that I face regularly but it might be a good one to try out!”

Louis Armstrong told Dexter there would always be a place for him in his band. Dexter thought Louis was “the best.” They had such a wonderful relationship.

KC – How important do you think it is to build close relationships with fellow band-mates?

ER – “I think it’s really important to get to know and build a close relationship with bandmates, as much for practical reasons as musical, because if you are going to spend a lot of time together on the road it’s important that you understand each other and so maintain a really good relationship that allows the music to flourish.  From a purely musical perspective I think it helps if you know your bandmates really well as you will be able to draw upon the connection that you have to create and expand the music each time that you play together.”

Dexter and Melba

Dexter composed a tune called ‘Mischievous Lady’ for trombonist Melba Liston which they recorded together in 1947.

KC – Have you ever composed a piece of music for somebody and, if so, who?

ER – “Composing pieces for other people is something I’ve done quite a lot actually.  I find it a real source of inspiration for composition, the value of the piece feels extra-special for a long time afterwards.  I’ve written a piece for my Grandma called ‘Vera’, a piece for my Dad called ‘Middle Ground’ and a piece for one of my first composition teachers, John Ashton-Thomas, who sadly passed away last year.  All of these people hold a really special place in my heart and it felt really good to write music for them.”

Dexter Gordon was a hard-swinging bebop player. People appreciate bebop players for their skill at playing very fast, yet one of Dexter Gordon’s most well-known recordings is the ballad ‘Round Midnight’. Dexter once asked his good friend Miles Davis when he was going to play a ballad again, to which Miles replied, “Man, you play a ballad. It’s too hard.” 

Bertrand Tavernier and Dexter

KC – Do you think there is more skill required to play fast or to express a slow ballad?

ER – “I think it’s a complicated question that doesn’t necessarily have a right answer, but generally I think that more feeling and ability to express emotion through music is required to really pull off playing a ballad. Obviously, a huge amount of technical proficiency is needed when playing fast or conventionally very challenging technical pieces but there are elements of a different skill-set also needed to play a ballad really well which Dexter obviously really had.”

The recording of ‘The Chase’ in 1947 for Dial Records set the standard for the popular tradition of ‘battling tenor saxophones’, Wardell Gray and Dexter Gordon battling.

KC – Who would you choose to have a saxophone battle with and who would win?

ER – “I think calling it a saxophone battle, specifically using the word ‘battle’, could imply something negative. In fact, I think every recorded ‘saxophone battle’ that I have listened to is, in fact, not coming from that place at all.  Two that come to mind are the Sonny Stitt, Sonny Rollins ones on The Eternal Triangle and I see those as a reflection of them being equals who are both great players.  So, I wouldn’t like to use the word battle but a saxophonist I’d absolutely love to play with is Joshua Redman.”

Dexter at Ronnie’s 1962

When Dexter Gordon got offered a gig at world-renowned Ronnie Scott’s, he prepared himself by getting a haircut, buying some new reeds, and shopping for clothes and a new pair of shoes.

KC – What preparation would you do for a big, important gig?

ER – “To prepare for a really important gig I think there are a number of things you can do.  The first is very instrument based, so making sure you feel really in shape with your instrument, practising and making sure that it all feels good. But I also think a large amount of the preparation is about your mental approach so looking after yourself physically and mentally.  I think there are also other things that are really important, so like Dexter buying new shoes and getting a haircut before a gig, feeling confident in your appearance can play a part too.

But, for me the main things are practising and feeling fully prepared on that front plus checking in with myself to make sure I’m feeling well physically and mentally too.”

Photo by Mariola Zoladz

Emma will be joined on 4th June by a whole host of top artists on the UK jazz scene. To book tickets, click here

To find out more about Emma, please visit her site here

Photos of Dexter Gordon courtesy of Maxine Gordon


Last modified: September 10, 2022