An Interview with Zoe Schwarz & Rob Koral of Blue Commotion - a melting pot of jazz/ blues/ soul music

"Blues started out of necessity, honesty and is fundamentally simple and humble."

Zoe Schwarz Blue Commotion: Let The Good Times Roll

ZOE SCHWARZ BLUE COMMOTION (formally The Baddest Blues Band) began in 2007, is a drawing upon the melting pot of popular music past and present, creating vibrant original songs and fresh arrangements of classic tunes by the 'greats' a perfect mix of head and heart. The first Blue Commotion gig in 2012 was a culmination of a ten-year musical partnership between Zoe Schwarz and guitarist Rob Koral. Through their intense musical journey and compatible desire, they developed a perfect collaboration and empathy, which, when analysed, comes from two completely different starting points. Because of this melting pot of musical diversity, there is a depth and uniqueness to the band's music which is hard to pigeon-hole and categorise.
The band is a line-up whose members are all individually renowned as performers in their own right, and who have come together these past years to put their personalities and talents into a cohesive contemporary and highly original blues flavored gigging and recording band. Personnel include sassy vocals (Zoe Schwarz), individual and stylish guitar (Rob Koral), animated and charismatic harmonica & backing vocals (Si Genaro), wailing Hammond-organ (Pete Whittaker), achingly groovy rhythm section with bassist Rodney Teague and legendary drummer Paul Robinson. Expect an exhilarating and thoroughly modern mix of blues and contemporary influences; combining a sense of history with their own great originals and a sprinkling of classic songs by the likes of Muddy Waters, Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Koko Taylor and Willie Dixon. Performing Arts degree from Middlesex University. Zoë has headlined at Ronnie Scott's, The Vortex, and at festivals all over the UK. She has performed with an extraordinarily wide range of musicians including Harrison Birtwistle, Emma Kirkby, Scott Stroman and Keith Tippett. Co-leader of the band, Rob is originally from a blues background. He since made his name on the British scene, having performed with Jim Mullen, Django Bates, Bill Bruford, Tim Garland, Dave O'Higgins, Ainsley Dunbar and Sue Hawker. Rob has been described as one of the most prolific writers of quality jazz songs. Zoe Schwarz Blue Commotion's new third album ‘EXOSED’ (2014) features the varied and dynamic writing of Zoe and Rob. All thirteen songs show case the distinct elements of the band.


Interview by Michael Limnios

How do you describe and what characterize band's songbook?

Rob: Music’s always hard to describe. We don’t write songs to a formula and we don’t limit our imagination, or be afraid to step outside boundaries. Our music has strands of blues/rock, 60’s psychodelia, improvisation, harmonic complexity, with a variety of different rhythms and grooves as well as the ‘blues-shuffle’.

When was your first desire to become involved in the music & who were your first idols?

Rob: When I was at School I saw the BBC documentary on the Cream Fair well concert, that was the moment I became inspired to pick up a guitar, found some other people in school who were also interested in playing music and started jamming and trying to learn riffs and guitar licks.  When the jamming turned in to the first tentative gigs is a bit of a blur…But that’s how it all started for me.

Zoe: I don’t remember, as I have always wanted to sing and perform. My mother was a classical pianist and then later Head of Music in a school, she encouraged us as children. My first love was classical music, and from an early age I conducted our school schola (church choir).  I regularly sang solos in church, and at school concerts and festivals.  I went on to get a degree in music and was classically trained.

What made you fall in love with the blues music?

Zoe: I went to boarding school from age 7 till 18, and did not easily get to hear other forms of music. At some point in my teens I was given a Billie Holiday tape, and my love of listening to, and singing ‘Billie Ballads’ started then.  I loved the bluesy, relaxed phrasing and the lilting passion. It wasn’t until much later, when I was in my twenties, that I discovered the likes of Etta James, Ray Charles and BB King.

Rob: Simply the deeply moving and sensual quality of an electric guitar going through a valve amplifier, the effect of sustain, vibrato and string bending which, for me, and probably millions of others simply speaks in a way that’s easy to relate to.

 

What characterize the sound of Zoe? How do you describe her philosophy about the music?

Rob: From the very first time I heard Zoe sing she had a deeply moving yearning quality that she didn’t realize she had. It was simply a case of recognizing these qualities and then writing and finding material which show-cased her individual talent. In a way quite strange that after many years of singing her natural leaning had remained hidden and untapped.

"Our music has strands of blues/rock, 60’s psychodelia, improvisation, harmonic complexity, with a variety of different rhythms and grooves as well as the ‘blues-shuffle’."

What characterizes the sound of Rob? How do you describe your philosophy about the music?

Rob: Simply to not put up barriers or have too many rules where by you’re not allowed to do this or that. For example, when I’m playing I’m thinking about the chord changes and target notes and very rarely just about the pentatonic scale. Also I always strive to eliminate the feeling of physical tension in the execution of a phrase, I want the music to be flowing and to be able to go through the gears and change direction when ever the mood takes. But of course I have no problem with hitting a note aggressively when the mood requires that. Ultimately you should be able to recognize a player after just one or two phrases, or by the way they hold on to a note.

Tell me about the beginning of Blue Commotion. How did you choose the name and where did it start?

Rob: Originally the idea to create a big six piece rocking type Blues influenced band came from a bass player colleague. He christened the band The Baddest Blues Band (ever!) and we gigged in this way for five years. Personally we were never happy with the name and the musical restraints that were put upon us by the record label, so we re-invented ourselves as ZOE SCHWARZ BLUE COMMOTION.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

Zoe: The biggest overall impact on my singing career is a very easy question to answer…quite simply meeting Rob. I had all the desire, musical education, encouragement from my family, and commitment to performing but, like with so many people, I didn’t know how to focus these energies in the right direction. So was basically adrift and stabbing in the dark.

Rob: Meeting and playing with many great musicians and as a result being stretched and pushed.

What is the best advice ever given you?

Zoe: Trust yourself and your own musical instincts and stay in tune with what naturally comes easily to you … these will be your own musical trade-marks, and recognizable nuances.

Rob: I’ve pretty much done it my own way, but you find out nuggets of information along the way and most often learn your biggest lessons on stage playing in front of audiences.

"Blues for me is a form of music where I am free from ‘classical restraints’ and can be creative and expressive. Sing the same song in a different way each night."

Are there any memories of Blue Commotion which you’d like to share with us?

Rod: Very simply the tremendous fun we had recording our CD ‘Good Times’. We spent two days at the recording studios at Bournemouth University in the South of England. The different personalities in the band get on so well, and we feel that we’ve created a sound which is uniquely ours.

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

Zoe: The worst must be after I left college. I was involved in too many different musical projects, and struggled to get settled into a music genre that suited me, and although I liked to improvise I felt my voice sounded too weak. I then spent time working in the city, in banking. By August 2000 I realized that I wanted to get back to singing, so gave up the office job. I found I had a voice. The best moment must be meeting Rob, coming from very different musical back grounds seems to be great for our performing and song writing. We are also now married. Another ‘best’ moment must be when Rob and I had a weeks residency at the world famous ‘Ronnie Scott’s’ Jazz club, it was a wonderful experience, especially since when I worked in the city, I used to be very jealous of the artists when I took clients there and was on the ‘wrong side of the fence’!

What does the BLUES mean to you & what does MUSIC offered you?

Zoe: Blues for me is a form of music where I am free from ‘classical restraints’ and can be creative and expressive. Sing the same song in a different way each night.

"My hopes are that there will be a back-lash against the corporate ‘junk food’ music industry."

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past?

Zoe: Maybe it’s always been this way, but it feels to me that the corporate world has put its claws into even genre music like blues.  In other words I miss the openness and blank-cheque feel that enabled the greats of the 60’s to flourish.

Rob: There were so many independent record labels giving outlets to all sorts of music and bands, a lot of the bands I liked were instrumental …Imagine trying to do that today!!

What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

Zoe: My hopes are that there will be a back-lash against the corporate ‘junk food’ music industry.

Rob: To keep improving on the guitar and helping make more and more people aware of Zoe’s amazing vocal prowess, and of course our band and our songs. I’ve not been side tracked by fears so far!

Rob, do you remember anything funny or interesting from Aynsley Dunbar?

To be honest, my meeting with Aynsley Dunbar was fleeting, but I do remember being invited by him to come and jam at a place he had under the arches at Kew Bridge in London. I remember a great groove and feel, I think he was between bands.

What are some of the most memorable gigs and jams you've had?

Rob: I’ve been on the television a few times, and you probably know about a program called ‘The Old Grey Whistle Test’. The achievement that it was always playing a minority type of music, such as Blues, Jazz, Fusion…

Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet?

Rob: My heroes are Ginger Baker, Jack Bruce and Eric Clapton.

Zoe: Billie Holiday, my lifelong hero.  Also, Nina Simone for her approach and attitude to singing and music, to tell a story rather than ‘sound good’.

"Simply the deeply moving and sensual quality of an electric guitar going through a valve amplifier, the effect of sustain, vibrato and string bending which, for me, and probably millions of others simply speaks in a way that’s easy to relate to."

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES

Rob: I think Blues is still with us because it isn’t a fad, it’s not a corporate lead product, it survives on it’s strengths alone. My wish for the Blues would be that it is better represented in the main stream, it deserves more ‘air’ time.

Zoe: Blues started out of necessity, honesty and is fundamentally simple and humble.  It was the foundation for so many other forms of music, Jazz, Rock’n Roll etc…It can be taken in so many directions; in fact there are probably more directions for it to go!  How could that ever be a fad?

Any of the blues standards that have any real personal feelings for you & what are some of your favorite?

Zoe: I mentioned Billie Holiday ballads; ‘Lover Man’ and ‘Don’t Explain’ ignited my love for singing in a ‘free’ way.  But I suppose if I were to choose actual Blues numbers, ‘Sitting On Top Of The World’, ‘I Can’t Quit You Babe’ and ‘Reconsider Baby’ were among the standards where I started finding a voice where I could really push the notes out, and not be afraid of really ‘letting go’.

 

How do you describe your contact to people when you are on stage?

Rob: If we, the band, are really enjoying ourselves, the audience seems to pick up on this.

Zoe: The mood on stage is directly related to the audience. We do have a ‘wild card’ in the band, Si Genaro, my co-front man, Harmonica player, backing vocalist and sometimes ‘rapper’. He is very charismatic and vibrant on stage…People find him a huge source of entertainment as well as being pretty virtuosic on his harps!

"I think Blues is still with us because it isn’t a fad, it’s not a corporate lead product, it survives on it’s strengths alone. My wish for the Blues would be that it is better represented in the main stream, it deserves more ‘air’ time." 

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

Zoe: I would wish for a proportionate amount of exposure/air time and general coverage of “real” music… no matter what genre.

Rob: I’d make backing tracks illegal, and take away bureaucracy that gets in the way of ‘live’ music.

Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet?

Zoe: Well it would be interesting to meet Bessie Smith, but I would say pretty scary to a feisty lady and I gather sexually and socially very ‘liberal’.

Rob: I am not so much influenced by the historical blues personalities. My starting point was from the 60’s blues boom that took place in London. Of course we do play some of the great standards written by the likes of Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon and Lowell Fulson.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?

Zoe: Not one individual (although we have our heroes, mentioned earlier)…it is a great many influences that make us who we are.

What compliment do you appreciate the most after a gig?

Rob: When people come and tell us that they prefer our songs to the ‘covers’. To be honest it seems to happen quite a lot.

What does to be a female artist in a “Man's World” as James Brown says?

Zoe: Not so much a man’s world today… in fact some female artists have been picked from the pack purely because they’re ‘girls with guitars’.

What is the status of women in Blues?

Zoe: It seems very healthy in America and Europe.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

Zoe: Off the top of may head, I’d like to go back and hear Billie Holiday ‘live’… when she was in her prime…  she’s been a massive influence on me.

Rob: I’d like to go back to 1967 and hear Cream ‘live’ in their peak.

What is your music DREAM? What turns you on? Happiness is…

Zoe: Dream....to have other artists cover our song...turns me on ...to keep increasing the number of quality gigs we do, and to be able to travel...Happiness is...generally to get our music out there.

What do you think about Charlie Christian?

Rob: Charlie Christian was an innovator, influencing everyone from Wes Montgomery, George Benson and I guess blues players like Robben Ford.

How you would spend a day with BB King?

Rob: Simply listening to and absorbing his life stories and experiences.

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Photo by John Bull

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