Interview: Rachel Z Hakim

Acoustic, electric, and everything in between
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“I just can’t decide which music I like the best, so I do it all and I love it all,” keyboardist Rachel Z Hakim says via phone from her home in New Jersey. After soaring to musical heights as both a solo artist and sidewoman to musicians such as Wayne Shorter and Peter Gabriel, Hakim is readying her new album Eyes to the Future with Oz Experience, the band she co-leads with her husband, drummer Omar Hakim. The album, due out in 2017, will showcase the many facets of her musical persona.

“I was born in New York City,” Hakim explains, “but I was soon kidnapped to live in New Jersey!” [Laughs.] “I grew-up in Denville, which is a small town that happened to have a lot of music in it. My mom was an opera singer and my dad played piano. I started playing piano by ear, and then my parents got me piano lessons. And that was great: I learned to read, and I studied a lot of classical, including Mozart, who I loved. In school, I played clarinet, flute, and oboe, and my parents played opera in the house all of the time. So I was around a lot of music.”

Hakim developed a love for jazz early on. “I fell in love with it because of my dad,” she says. “He had records like Miles Smiles, and Jazz at the Plaza. He took me to the Village Vanguard to hear some great stuff. I saw Bill Evans, who sounded amazing, and heard him play “Nardis”! I also saw Phineas Newborn, Dexter Gordon, Elvin Jones, and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra. Then I went to the Berklee College of Music seven-week summer music program when I was in high school, and later to the New England Conservatory for jazz studies.”

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Hakim would forge lasting musical friendships during her time studying in Boston. “My roommate at Berklee was [violinist] Regina Carter, and she introduced me to [saxophonist] Najee, who later hired me for a successful tour,” she explains. “But after I graduated from NEC, I didn’t have any money, so I had to stay in Boston. I put together a band with [saxophonist] George Garzone and I hired his trio the Fringe to play with me at the Copley Marriott. That was my acoustic, ‘weekend’ band. And on Wednesdays, I had an electric trio with people like Bob Moses, Bruno Robert and Baron Browne. I was playing a lot of different keyboards back then. With Najee, I was playing a Rhodes through a Roland Jazz Chorus JC-120. It sounded really good! And in another band I was using a Roland D-50, a Yamaha DX-7, an Oberheim Xpander, and later a Korg Wavestation and M1, and an Akai S750 sampler. It was a big rig, and I was moving it all by myself!”

One of Hakim’s early successes was her inclusion in the pioneering electric-jazz unit Steps Ahead. “We invited Randy Brecker to come up and play with my band,” she says. “I recorded it, so I soon had a tape with Randy Brecker on it. When I moved to New York, I heard that Steps Ahead was auditioning keyboard players. It was pretty scary and cold that February. I didn’t have a lot of gigs, or a lot of money to remain in New York. I felt a lot of pressure, so I took that tape to [Steps Ahead founder and vibraphonist] Mike Manieri. I guess he liked it, because he hired me! That’s how I got the gig. I joined in 1988 and stayed for around five years. That led to me playing with Wayne Shorter, who heard me with Steps at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Holland. We talked, and he asked me to send him a videotape, which I did. Then I called him and asked him if he wanted to play on my album for Columbia. He replied, ‘I can’t, because I just signed a new deal with Elektra/Musician. How about you play on my record?’ And I was like, ‘Great idea!’ [Laughs.] We became friends, and after I finished my album Trust the Universe, I worked for him for about a year, programming and playing all of his charts into Digital Performer version 1. Later we took that music on tour, as well.”

Hakim’s star rose even further as the keyboardist in Peter Gabriel’s band. “I had been doing an extensive tour with my own band, and at the same time I was doing some demos with vocals that Duncan Sheik had produced. He gave my demo to producer Kevin Killen, who had heard that Peter was looking for a keyboard player. I got called to audition in the middle of a tour I was doing with [the late Italian singer/songwriter] Pino Daniele. I was on the road, so I was running around Italy trying to get the CDs to prepare for the audition! It was very hairy, but luckily, I knew a lot of that music from my childhood. I loved his music so much. I left the Pino Daniele tour on our one day off, flew to London, and auditioned at Real World Studios. It was a blind audition: He taped us and then listened back without knowing who was playing. I got the gig, and then I only had two weeks to learn 22 songs and program them all into a Kurzweil 2600, which I had never seen before. I worked with Kurzweil programmer Jeff Allison on every sound and the deep programming for the tour. I stayed with Gabriel from 2002 to 2005. It was just a perfect gig.”

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These days, Hakim is focusing her efforts squarely on her upcoming new album, which she produced with husband and group co-leader Omar Hakim. “When Omar and I got married, we made our album The Trio of Oz and toured for three years straight,” she explains. “It was totally awesome, but then my mom and dad died during that tour, four months apart from each other. I sort of lost my sense of purpose, because you want to do stuff for your parents. We continued to tour, but I became more and more confused about where I was going. Then I started getting calls to play keyboards with other people. One person that called was [saxophonist] Wayne Escoffery. So I put together a new rig for his tour, using the Kurzweil PC3K7 and Spectrasonics Omnisphere. I was coming up with sounds for his tour, and things started feeling so good, I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll get back into this.’ Then I played on a record and tour with Omar, and in guitarist Neal Schon’s group. I actually got a custom, purple Minimoog Voyager for that tour, which I love.”

Hakim’s new album Eyes to the Future is a hybrid of acoustic and electronic sonorities. “All of these things—the Kurzweil, the Moog, and Omnisphere—sound amazing,” she says. “There’s so much power in the computer these days.

“When Omar got the gig with Kate Bush, I taught myself Ableton Live,” Hakim continues. “I went to all 16 of Kate’s shows, which were incredible, and during the day, I learned Ableton from tutorials and wrote a song every day. So remember, even if you’re just learning a program, you might come up with some great stuff, so don’t delete anything! I used a lot of really interesting programs in Ableton, and I felt really free and inspired. I wrote 15 songs that are kind of improvised electronic dance music, but my inevitable jazz soul is also going to write some weird chord changes, too. We recorded the music with a full band, combining Ableton loops, acoustic jazz trio, raw Native Instruments-type sounds, as well as my Fazioli grand piano. So the record is a bit like [Weather Report’s] Heavy Weather in that it has beautiful melodies and extended sections, but we also want to reach people with a rebel spirit.”