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By Michael Roberts
Emma Rawicz’s tonal colors are influenced by the actual colors she sees while playing and listening to music.
Many jazz musicians try to create sounds capable of producing specific images in the mind of a listener. But London-based saxophonist Emma Rawicz has a head start on this process. The 21-year-old’s vibrant new album, Chroma (ACT Music), is informed by chromesthesia, which allows those who experience it, including Rawicz, to essentially hear in colors.
“I have a very strong association with music and colors,” she confirms.
Chromesthesia is one aspect of synesthesia, a condition that can extend beyond hearing to other senses. For example, colors also appear to Rawicz when she tastes certain foods, and she visualizes them in various ways. “Maybe a cloud would be a good way to talk about it,” she says. “It’s like a living thing.”
Rawicz’s first instrument was violin, and early on, she mainly played classical music. But she loved a jazzy big band she heard around age 12, and by her middle-teens, she’d transitioned to saxophone and started exploring a new genre. Double Rainbow, an Antonio Carlos Jobim tribute by saxophonist Joe Henderson, was her entry point to jazz.
Although Incantation, Rawicz’s 2022 debut recording, was an ambitious, acclaimed piece of work, her follow-up represents a conceptual leap informed by her chromesthesia. “As I realized its significance in music, I’ve tried to draw on it in a more direct way,” she says.
All but one composition on Chroma is named for the color that directly inspired it, and Rawicz says the single exception, “Middle Ground,” a soothing centerpiece that she wrote as a birthday gift for her father, bears a distinctive tint — “a type of light blue that hadn’t presented itself before.”
The origins of “Phlox,” the opening track, offer insight into the technique Rawicz employed. “It’s a shade of pink that you sometimes see on some plants,” she notes. “I remember looking at it and thinking, ‘This is a really gripping, engaging color that’s almost uncomfortable because it’s so strong and in your face.’”
At that point, Rawicz, whose instrumental tool kit includes flute and bass clarinet, wrote an offering to embody phlox, and the result is an exciting, rhythmically complex scorcher
The album is very much a complete work, as opposed to a collection of random numbers, thanks in part to “Xanadu,” whose three variations are interspersed throughout the set.
“It’s a kind of grainy green color,” she explains. “I discovered it online at about 3 a.m. and the harmony and the melody laid themselves out very clearly. It had these darker undertones that I felt would be very interesting to explore.”
Additional highlights such as the mysterious, sweeping “Rangwali” (the color is a purplish pink) and the graceful, sophisticated “Viridian” (green at its lushest) are greatly enhanced by Rawicz’s supporting crew, which includes some of the finest players on the young and burgeoning British jazz scene: pianist Ivo Neame, guitarist Ant Law, bassist Conor Chaplin, drummer Asaf Sirkis and vocalist Immy Churchill.
“All these people are such fantastic musicians and so in-demand that the idea of them all being free at the same time was a bit crazy,” she says. “It felt very serendipitous.”
For Rawicz, chromesthesia can present challenges in certain settings. “I can’t read a book with music on, and I sometimes find it difficult to have a really focused conversation with music in the background,” she admits. “My mind might wander a little faster.”
But when she’s playing the Chroma material live, with the musicians who helped her realize it, she understands she’s been given a gift. “In a performance setting,” she says, “what’s happening with all the senses feels very immersive. I can really just exist in the music.”
Featured photo by Gregor Hohenberg.