The ascent of saxophonist Emma Rawicz has been meteoric. Born in rural north Devon in 2002, as a child she studied classical violin and didn’t take up saxophone until her mid-teens, but by 2022, aged 20, she was on the Royal Academy of Music jazz course and had released her debut album, Incantation. She was also a multi-award nominee and winner – a finalist for BBC Young Jazz Musician 2022 and elsewhere acclaimed as newcomer of the year. The latter seems amusingly outdated given that in 2023 she released her second album, Chroma, and was already internationally acclaimed.
‘I would find an unusual colour online. I’d look at it for a really long time and then suddenly I’d start hearing music and ideas and then I’d use those ideas to create the pieces’
She describes herself on Instagram as “Emma Rawicz (ra-vich), noise architect”. That might sound like another of those fanciful slogans that abound in the arts but in her case it describes a reality: the visual dimension implied by “architect” actually informs her music. Rawicz has chromesthesia, a type of synesthesia, meaning she sees specific colours when she hears certain sounds. This inspired her approach to writing for Chroma, on which all but one of the tracks are named after obscure colours such as rangwali and viridian. “I would find an unusual colour online,” she says. “I’d look at it for a really long time and then suddenly I’d start hearing music and ideas and then I’d use those ideas to create the pieces, so it was a new way of composing.”
This might sound rather abstract but in fact Rawicz’s music is solidly structured and rhythmically propulsive, often reminding of the fusion and hard bop associated with such as Michael Brecker, though she reckons she listened most to Joe Henderson and Wayne Shorter. She’s clearly delighted with the latest record, featuring Ivo Neame (piano), Ant Law (guitar), Conor Chaplin (bass), Asaf Sirkis (drums) and Immy Churchill (vocals). She says: “The most exciting thing about playing improvised music is everyone having their own voice come across and I’m very happy that the band have been able to express their identities, that the compositions are imbued with their ideas. That’s something I was aiming for with the tunes and I think it happened really well.”
Growing up, Rawicz (the name came from her Polish paternal grandfather, who arrived in England in the 1940s) didn’t differentiate between different kinds of music, but when she began playing jazz it offered something other music didn’t. “I found all music, whether it was pop or rock or classical, really fascinating and I didn’t draw a distinction about what was cool and what was popular and what wasn’t,” she says of her childhood listening. “But when I discovered jazz it grabbed me because it felt like a music I could enjoy listening to and enjoy playing just as much and that was a balance I hadn’t found [before].”
She had heard a big band at a Dartington festival as a younger child. She didn’t know it was jazz, but loved what she heard. “I just knew I loved the sound and in particular the saxophones in the band. I got my first saxophone (it was an alto) at around 14 and the teacher at my school was purely a classical sax teacher. She wanted me to take the ABRSM sax exams and so my repertoire was all classical at this stage. Within a few months I moved to another teacher, Jon Gillies, who, when I asked a few months after starting with him, agreed to teach me a bit of jazz as well as the classical sax I was originally enrolled with him for.”
However, it was her experience from age 15 at the Junior Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London that really opened her eyes – and ears – to jazz. She would go on Saturdays by train from Devon. She says “This was my first serious exposure to jazz in terms of playing it or listening to it in any serious way. I very quickly decided that I wanted to play tenor sax and managed to get one part way through that academic year. I auditioned for Chetham’s on tenor sax and went there aged 16 to study for my sixth form.”
National Youth Jazz Collective courses in 2017, 2018 and 2019 were also formative. “The main thing for me that was valuable was getting to meet other people my age who were really interested in jazz because growing up in rural north Devon most people weren’t. All of a sudden I was in this great environment with people my age who also loved it and that was great.” After Chetham’s, where her sax teacher was the renowned Iain Dixon, she went to the Royal Academy of Music in London, taught by Tim Garland and Julian Siegel.
As well tenor, Rawicz plays bass clarinet and flute on Chroma, and her soloing is scintillating. “A lot of the time I’m not thinking about the notes I’m going to play as much as how I’m going to respond to what the other people in the band are doing so I get ideas from the way Ivo might be playing a chord or the way Asaf might be playing a rhythm. It’s not conscious, like ‘I’m going to play this note on this chord’ or ‘I’m going to play this rhythm’ – it’s mostly intuitive, which is fun. But it makes it difficult to explain!”
She acknowledges that presenting new music to her band can be nerve-wracking. “[They’re] really experienced and have played with some of the best musicians in the world so it is a bit scary presenting a new musical idea to them. I normally give them the music on manuscript paper but if I can play the general idea on the piano or even sing the groove to give them an idea about it, then I will do that as well and then we play it and see what happens. But sometimes I’ll have a really specific idea in mind and I might say ‘This is what I thought of when I was writing this, let’s see if it comes out that way.’ But if it doesn’t that’s fine.”
Several tracks feature Immy Churchill’s vocals. Rawicz herself sang on Incantation, her 2022 debut album. “The only reason there were vocals on the first album was because when we recorded all the instruments I realised there was this nice vocal quality to some of the music and I kept singing along as we were listening back to the takes. I decided it would sound better with voice on the top but of course I hadn’t asked a vocalist so I had to do it myself!”
‘As a woman when you go out people expect you to do your hair or put your makeup on and performing is no different. That can be distracting. But I really like getting ready for a gig and thinking about how you present yourself’
Rawicz is often the only woman on the bandstand when she gigs and, as a woman, is judged on her appearance more than her male colleagues are. While male jazz musicians as often as not perform in jeans and T-shirts women seem to be expected to look groomed and glamorous. “I think you’re right,” muses Rawicz. “But I also think that that’s just the case in life – as a woman when you go out people expect you to do your hair or put your makeup on and performing is no different. That can be distracting. But I really like getting ready for a gig and thinking about how you present yourself because people are watching you perform as well as hearing you. That’s part of how they experience the music. So I think it would be good if the guys also maybe took a bit more time to choose their clothes!”
Despite being a young woman on a male-dominated scene Rawicz doesn’t feel she has suffered any major mistreatment. “There’s always the odd thing but the great thing about being a bandleader is that you [choose] the people you work with and the people I play with are very respectful and really good fun to work with.”
‘I think one of the things about being a jazz musician is this idea of always being a student and learning the whole way through your career because if you’re not, then you’re not really embracing the point of improvised music’
Given her success, it’s mind-boggling to note that Rawicz is still a student, in her final year at the RAM. Isn’t she tempted to pack it in to free up more of her time for gigging? Apparently not. “I have really amazing teachers, particularly my head of department, Nick Smart, who is really supportive and always tries to find a way for me to go out and take opportunities when they come up. And I really enjoy learning. Great musicians come in and speak to us and we’re encouraged to compose and play in different lineups that maybe wouldn’t come up as often if we weren’t there. And I think one of the things about being a jazz musician is this idea of always being a student and learning the whole way through your career because if you’re not, then you’re not really embracing the point of improvised music.”
Another element of the jazz business away from the bandstand is the ever-proliferating awards system. Rawicz reflects on being a finalist in the 2022 BBC Young Jazz Musician competition, which was won by bassist Ewan Hastie: “I’m not a fan of music being a competition because the greatest opportunities come when we work together,” she says. “However, one of the great things about that competition is it gets jazz back into the mainstream and helps people to understand that young people play jazz and can listen to jazz. Because there’s this idea that if you’re young it’s not for you.”
Incantation was much admired, with critics comparing her to legends like Wayne Shorter and Chris Potter. ‘I could never see myself on that level,’ she demurs
That debut album, Incantation, was much admired, with critics excitedly comparing her playing to that of legends like Wayne Shorter and Chris Potter. “I could never see myself on that level,” she demurs. “Those people are my heroes. I’m kind of like ‘Really? Are you sure?’ It’s lovely and I’ve been very grateful for the positive response but I do have to pinch myself sometimes!”
Rawicz has also been influenced by, amongst others, Joni Mitchell and Brazilian guitarist Baden Powell. “Joni Mitchell is very adventurous, never afraid to change from one album to the next. There’s a kind of courage in that, exploring all the time. And some of the way she approaches harmony on the guitar has informed the way I approach playing the piano when I’m composing so she’s definitely had an impact on my compositions.
“And Baden Powell’s Os Afro Sambas is one of the most beautiful albums I’ve ever heard, particularly the vocal melodies. They’ve really inspired the way I approach composition because they’re so memorable and infectious and that’s a quality I’d really like to capture in my music.”
Rawicz believes her music has developed in the short time between Incantation and Chroma. “I’ve grown as a musician. My playing has improved and I’ve been able to be more adventurous with composing and also the different improvising situations I’ve put myself in. And a big part of that is playing with such amazing musicians who have pushed me to be the best musician I can and to improve as much as possible.”
Leading bands that comprise many musicians older and more experienced than herself doesn’t faze Rawicz. “I love being able to put different people together and see what happens because with improvising so much of one’s personality comes out and those combinations can be super-interesting.”
Rawicz does admit to some stress, however. “Certainly the first time I stood in front of a big band for a rehearsal was nerve-wracking, because it’s intimidating to have 20 people look at you wondering what you’re going to say. But my band are very supportive and if I feel out of my depth or don’t know something or need advice I know I can ask them without them thinking that it’s silly that I don’t know something.”
Rawicz has some idea of how her music might develop, in the short term at least. “Since the release of Chroma I’ve written a lot of new music and some of that explores different styles. There are some rock influences and chamber jazz influences and maybe some slight Brazilian influences. I hope I carry on being inspired by all different kinds of things – and I hope to surprise myself with the direction that I go in in future.”
Mark Gilbert supplied additional material for this article, drawn from Emma Rawicz’s website and email correspondence with her.