Emma Rawicz’s career is anything but conventional. In contrast to most musicians who try to perfect their instrument as children, the Londoner only came into contact with the saxophone in her teens, but was soon to turn it into her second voice and quickly catch up with her peers. Now in her early twenties, she can already look back on two studio albums and a wide range of musical projects and ensembles, while at the same time completing her jazz studies at the Royal Academy.

Her first self-produced album Incantations already garnered some attention from the thriving British jazz scene. Shortly afterwards, she started composing her new project Chroma, raising the bar a whole lot higher. Apart from the first-class line-up of her band - Ivo Neame on piano, Conor Chaplin on bass and double bass, Asaf Sirkis on drums, as well as guitarist Ant Law, and up-and-coming singer Immy Churchill - Emma devotes this project concept to her chromesthesia, a certain kind of synaesthesia in which people perceive sounds with coloured sensations. With Chroma, incidentally named after the ancient Greek word for colour, Emma Rawicz makes her debut on the famous German independent jazz label ACT Music and more than rightly deserves our Qobuzissime!

Emma Rawicz
Emma Rawicz © Gregor Hohenberg

Even if your career is still pretty young, can you tell us where the first passion or interest in music came about in your life?

Music has always been a real interest of mine for as long as I can remember, but I didn’t come into contact with the saxophone, or jazz, until quite late compared to some people. When I was very young I played some classical music, some folk and rock music, and I messed around playing things like the violin, guitar, and piano. I was on a journey enjoying different kinds of music, but I knew from around the age of 12 that I really wanted to play the saxophone. In the end I didn’t get the chance until I was about 16, but when I played it for the first time it felt like a really significant moment. I felt like this is the right thing for me, I’d found something that clicked.

How did this particular moment come about?

I’ve seen someone play it in an amateur big band concert  and I just thought that it was an incredible instrument, an amazing sound, and I wanted to be a part of that kind of sound. I’ve been asking my parents for quite a long time and eventually they caved in like: “Fine, you can have a saxophone…” And so I got to the saxophone lesson — and I’d never played the saxophone before — and I didn’t really know where to put my fingers or anything, but once I’d figured that out and I just remembered playing a note in this first lesson and I just thought: “Wow, this is very different to anything I’ve done before.” It felt much more natural and it still feels that way. It still feels like a special kind of thing because I play lots of other instruments now as well. I play the flute and the bass clarinet, and some piano and I enjoy all of those things, but I find them less natural. It feels less like there’s a real connection, whereas with the saxophone, there is one.

For a while I wanted to be a film score composer. I looked up all these different university courses that maybe I would go and do to learn about that. But there was actually this amazing composition teacher at the summer school who said, “I think you should try playing jazz more seriously, and you should try getting into a junior conservatory”. It was at that moment though, where I was like, yeah, I guess I probably should try taking one thing seriously because it was very random. Up until then I was always like: “Oh, I like this and I like that and I wanna be in a rock band and I wanna be in a string orchestra, etc.” So then I said to myself, “okay, now I need to really focus on one thing: jazz”.

Are there any particular traditions, genres or artists in your jazz studies that particularly influence you?

As soon as I picked up the saxophone and decided that jazz was my thing, I felt the environment was quite intense, because I had to catch up. Some people had already spent 10 years studying the instrument and the music and I thought: “Oh my God, I’m really behind. I’m never gonna be on the same level as these people around me.” I had quite an intense period of study from the age of maybe 16 to 19, where I practiced for eight to ten hours a day. I’m really glad I did it, because I feel as a result that now I’m able to enjoy all of my playing experiences so much more. There’s now a foundation to what I’m doing, although obviously I’m still very much learning.

I had some really great teachers, and a few different music schools and junior conservatoires where I got to know many things. I like the saxophone players from the fifties and sixties. I focused a lot on Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson and Coltrane, and it was really about trying to learn the basics for me. A lot of jazz musicians take for granted that we interact with the music as if it were a language. It’s given that you would know a lot of things; which record this came from, who played it… And I didn’t know most of it. So it was kind of like a crash course. I still have to absorb all these things right now. In the beginning I practiced and learned a lot of swing, a bit of Brazilian music and particularly jazz from the fifties and sixties, or some kind of avant-garde stuff, and I was mainly in that bubble. I didn’t feel like I could go outside of that until I’d made real progress. Of course that style of jazz is still very important to me, but also singer-songwriter or folk and rock music formed a huge part of what I’ve enjoyed my whole life.

How do you situate yourself in the young British jazz scene that is currently on the rise?

One of the things that’s special about the UK, and the London Jazz scene in particular, is that there’s really a space for pretty much anything and anyone. It’s such a huge city with so many people living here, and so many musicians and different kinds of music. It’s cool, because there’s also a lot of venues and I think that means that these different scenes can form you; if you’re interested in hip-hop and afrobeat and how that might interact with jazz, you can explore that and there will probably be a venue that wants to put that on, and there’ll be an audience that wants to hear it. Same of course with Straight-ahead jazz or Fusion and Free Jazz. That’s quite special. London can sometimes feel really overwhelming but that can be a very valuable thing, because I think most people can find their place here and find a way to fit into it. There are some jazz musicians in London who don’t know each other at all despite having been playing in the same city for decades, because they operate in a different part of the scene, and I think that’s really great.

Emma Rawicz
Emma Rawicz © Gregor Hohenberg

Your new album Chroma is dedicated to colors. You’re a synesthete yourself, where two senses are connected in a special way — in your case you experience music through a second sensory pathway, color. When did you first notice this special phenomenon?

I don’t know if I can really remember the first time, but I do remember it being a very strong link for me as long as I can remember, and that’s probably why I had such a strong relationship to music. It felt really exciting even if it was just in an advertisement or a film or just whatever. I think that association of color and music has always been there, and I didn’t realize for a while that this wasn’t just how it was for everybody (laughs). I’ve met a couple of other people, generally musicians, who are also synesthetes but they all experience it in a different way. I think that’s so amazing, because I’ll speak to someone and I’ll be like: “I really think that this key has this color”, and the person would answer: “No way, it has this color!” It’s really cool because it’s such a bizarrely unique experience, I guess in the same way that the music is a unique experience for everybody even if you’re taking it down to something a bit more specific… it’s just never going to be the same for all of us.

When did you have the idea to dedicate your music and this album to this special phenomenon?

I think this album is the most active decision I’ve taken to link those things so far, because I think that everything has been linked in some way. With my first album I had a great time writing the music, but I was maybe a little bit afraid to step outside of the musical structures that I knew really well. I was trying to make sense of everything and fit it all into something that I understood, which was really fun. But with Chroma I was trying to use these colour prompts to compose something, and I’d pick unusual colours or ones that I didn’t know very well, and as a result I’d be forced to write things that I’d never written before. It was great; I’d see a colour and I’d hear this baseline or that riff, and it would be in an odd time signature, and without me thinking about it I have to figure out what the idea was. You have to figure out what’s going on, and whether or not to put notes in some places or others, and I know how to do that. When I played the music for the first time it was amazing, and felt new even for me! I feel like it’s a much stronger statement as a result and it sounds more personal.

Almost every track is connected to a special colour which is way less famous than the “usual” colours we know. Did you have the concept already in your mind before you were starting the composing process?

I actually decided to actively use it as a prompt so I would pick a colour before I’d written anything, then look at it to see what would happen. It was a really fun experiment, because it felt like less pressure in a way. Sometimes, when you’re trying to write a piece, you feel it should have this kind of cool thing and this kind of cool thing in another section. Especially now that jazz education is something that’s so accessible, everything has become codified and defined, which is great for understanding stuff, but it also means that when you’re trying to figure out what you want to do, you can feel a bit boxed in and trapped by all of the things that you know. Chroma felt like the first thing that gave me a way to break out of that, and to just write something without really understanding why I’ve written it or if it made sense, and to see that it works even if it doesn’t make sense (laughs).

On the album you’re collaborating with different great artists. How did you choose them?

Basically, I had just recorded my first album, and I felt I’d been working on this music so much and I want to break from it, so it would be a really nice time to start a new project. I was lucky enough to have a nice gig in the London Jazz Festival coming up six months later, so I thought this might be a nice chance to see if I could put a new project together with a new band. I just thought, if I could pick my dream band in the UK, who would be in it? Then I sent loads of text messages to these people just being like: “Hi, I’m Emma, we haven’t met but I’d really like to do a gig with you and I’m writing some new music.” Amazingly they were all free, and they all said yes! It was crazy; when I’m looking back I feel so lucky that that was even possible.  I wrote all this new music, because for me it was an important thing to try something new and not just bring my old music to these people. I designed the music with them in my mind. Over the next six months we did maybe 30 gigs and we were just playing all these different things and trying things out, and I think this happened naturally, because they’re all such amazing improvisers with their own amazing ideas and voices. They all memorised the music and we all ended up playing it in loads of different ways. Playing the music of Chroma with them so much before recording had a really big influence on the sound, because it definitely became a collaborative process. I designed something with them in mind and then I gave them the space to really bring their own thing to it, because I really love doing that as a composer.

If I’m going to invite a person to play my music then I’m not just inviting their skill, because I know that they’re really good at their instrument. For me it’s more exciting if you invite the whole person and their personality and their likes and dislikes and then they are allowed to just approach it as freely as possible and be completely themselves when they play. I think that’s why the album sounds like it does. You can hear six personalities interacting, because jazz is such a social music and it’s about who you are as a person as well as just your technical skills on the instrument.

Jazz is such a social music and it’s about who you are as a person.

Next to your Chroma-band project you also have some other projects going, for example the Emma Rawicz Jazz Orchestra…

Yes! I only started writing for big bands or the Jazz Orchestra less than a year ago but it had always been an ambition of mine, because I love big band music. I’ve always loved playing in a big band and I love listening to it. I have a lot of idols who have written for big bands like Nikki Iles, Maria Schneider, Marius Nesset — all of their music is just amazing and I was quite scared to try doing it myself, so I put it off for a long time. Then I spent a week at the Dartington Summer School that I’ve been going to for a long time. It takes place in the country and there’s music going on everywhere and I felt very inspired by hearing lots of different sounds. I thought, I’m just gonna try doing it and I wrote a couple of pieces. I got a band together from our Academy of Music and we all squeezed into a very small room, and it felt so amazing to hear it all being played. I thought: that’s it, I’ve got to try and make this work, and within a few months we were playing at Ronnie Scott’s and later at PizzaExpress Jazz Club, and I’ve got a few other plans coming up. It’s a real passion project; I love the fact that I have 20 musicians in it, and that I get to just pick an amazing set of musicians with a wonderful range of different voices, different strengths, and I can write pieces that feature them..

If you could choose a dream collaboration of musicians, who would you pick?

I guess in the Jazz world, I really admire Terry Lynn Carrington, I would really love to play with her one day. I don’t know if that will happen but she’s really inspiring! And outside of jazz one of my favourite artists is this amazing singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane; he is just an amazing musician and vocalist, he plays all these different instruments and writes all these huge pieces of music, so I think that would be a dream as well. But to be honest, my biggest ambition with my big band music is to get to work with some of the amazing radio big bands in Europe. That’s a long-term goal of mine, so I hope that one day maybe I’ll get the chance to do that but in the meantime I’m really enjoying just writing for myself.

You’re composing music, you’re still finishing your studies, you’re touring and you have several musical projects going on — How do you manage all this?

I try to be very organised, that helps a lot (laughs), but the main thing is that in all the different parts of my life I have very supportive people around me. I’ve got really lovely friends and family. Also the head of the department at the Royal Academy of Music is a really inspiring musician, and he understands that it gets very crazy sometimes in peoples’ careers. When he sees that I have opportunities he is very supportive and he wants me to make the most of them, and as a result I know that I can always call him and ask him for some advice. It feels like a team effort, and all the people who are involved are helping me to find a way to make it all work, which is amazing and makes me very lucky.

This interview was conducted by Lena Germann, on 25 July 2023.