Over the latter half of the '90s, pianist/keyboardist Rachel Z blossomed into one of the top female performers in contemporary mainstream jazz. Because of her work in fusion and jazz-pop, she hasn't always enjoyed universally high critical regard, but it's clear that commercial accessibility doesn't constitute the full breadth of her ambition. Plus, the more she came into her own as a solo artist, the more committed she became to spotlighting and collaborating with other female jazz players.
Rachel Z was born Rachel Nicolazzo in Manhattan; her mother was an opera singer, and so Rachel began voice training at the mere age of two, adding classical piano lessons at seven. At 15, she began playing in a Steely Dan cover band, and discovered jazz when she heard Miles Davis' Miles Smiles while attending a summer program at Boston's Berklee School of Music. Upon returning to Manhattan, she formed her own quintet, Nardis; she later graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music, where she studied with Joanne Brackeen, and gigged with several prominent artists in the Boston area, including George Garzone, Miroslav Vitous, and Bob Moses. She returned to Manhattan once again in 1988, first touring with Conservatory classmate Najee and then joining the fusion group Steps Ahead. Drawn to fusion because that was where the gigs were, Nicolazzo also played with Al DiMeola (Kiss My Axe), Larry Coryell, Special EFX, and Angela Bofill during this period, and also collaborated with Najee on 1990's big-selling smooth jazz hit Tokyo Blue, co-writing the title track and playing on the supporting tour. It was Steps Ahead leader/vibraphonist Mike Mainieri who suggested Nicolazzo change her name to Rachel Z, which was simply easier to spell.
In 1993, a year after she debuted with Steps Ahead on Yin-Yang, Mainieri produced Rachel Z's first album as a leader, Trust the Universe. Released on Columbia, it displayed the influence of Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, and also spawned a smooth jazz radio hit in "Nardis." In 1994, she began collaborating heavily with saxophone legend Wayne Shorter on his Verve debut and comeback effort, High Life, orchestrating his compositions (mostly on synth) and adding her own synthesizer and piano work. Released in 1995, the results were a commercial and (for the most part) critical success, winning a Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Album. After serving as musical director on the supporting tour, Z officially left Steps Ahead and signed with Mainieri's NYC label as a solo artist. Her label debut, A Room of One's Own, was a series of compositions dedicated to the female artists (in all fields) who'd inspired her. Appropriately, her backing group -- which featured, among others, her regular trio of the time in bassist Tracy Wormworth and drummer Cindy Blackman -- was heavily weighted toward female musicians. Released in 1996, the accessible acoustic jazz of A Room of One's Own was generally well-reviewed.
For her next project, Z signed with GRP and cut a hip-hop-flavored smooth jazz outing dubbed Love Is the Power, which was informed by her recent divorce and released in 1998. The following year, she participated in the fusion supergroup Vertú with former Return to Forever rhythm section Stanley Clarke and Lenny White, and subsequently returned to acoustic jazz with her next album for Tone Center. On the Milkyway Express: A Tribute to the Music of Wayne Shorter featured her young new trio of bassist Miriam Sullivan and drummer Allison Miller, with whom she'd been playing for several years and now made her primary group. Additionally, she and Sullivan began playing together in a rock-oriented outfit called Peacebox.
Although her own career was going quite well, an invitation from Peter Gabriel to perform on his 20 city U.S. tour in 2002 was too much to resist. She found herself going on the road at the same time her newest solo album, Moon at the Window, was arriving in stores. A disc of Joni Mitchell covers and interpretations, the album was very personal to Rachel, but the chance to work with Gabriel was one of the few reasons she would purposefully not tour behind her own record. ~ Steve Huey