Live review

Yazz Ahmed at Cheltenham 2019

Yazz Ahmed at Cheltenham 2019

Photo credit and © John Watson/ jazzcamera.co.uk

Yazz Ahmed’s Polyhymnia

(Jazz Arena, 5 May 2019, Cheltenham Jazz Festival, review by Peter Jones)

On Sunday, a sold-out Jazz Arena audience was treated to a performance of trumpeter Yazz Ahmed’s suite Polyhymnia, which is intended for CD release some time this year. Polyhymnia isn’t new: in fact it was written four years ago in response to a commission from Tomorrow’s Warriors, and was premiered with an all-female band in the same year. (preview link below) It consists of six longish pieces, each dedicated to a courageous and inspiring woman; hence there are tributes to figures as diverse as the civil rights activist Ruby Bridges, Saudi film director Haifaa Al Mansour and British jazz saxophonist Barbara Thompson.

The compositions conjure an intriguingly rich, multi-layered sound, created by Ahmed’s use of rhythms and modes associated with her part-Arabic heritage – specifically the flattened second that, to my ears, always suggests the Phrygian mode, but there may well have been other equally non-Western influences at work.

At Cheltenham the suite was performed by a 12-piece ensemble, consisting of seven women and five men, among them some of the most talented younger musicians on the UK jazz scene, including Nathaniel Facey on alto saxophone, Alexandra Ridout on trumpet, Ralph Wyld on vibes and Sophie Alloway on drums.

 

Polyhymnia at Cheltenham 2019

Photo credit and © John Watson/ jazzcamera.co.uk

Ahmed, a shy, diffident figure, rather under-sold the music at the start; it’s actually a lot more intriguing than she made it sound in her introduction, its subtle qualities slowly revealing themselves over the course of the gig. For me, the stand-out tune was One Girl Too Many, dedicated to Malala Yousafzai. Ahmed had the brilliant idea of taking extracts from Yousafzai’s 2013 speech to the United Nations and turning the rhythms of the words into musical phrases. These also emerge as spoken words, uttered in unison by the ensemble, the best and most telling of which refer to the Taliban, who tried to kill her: “They are afraid of women.”

2857 refers to the number of the bus famously ridden by Rosa Parks. The piece was dedicated to her, beginning as a sort of death march, with mournful solos from George Crowley on tenor and trombonist Carol Jarvis. Using electronics, Ahmed then created a loud rumbling effect that sounded like the engine of the bus, before the piece built to a wild cadenza, ending with a funky section with a solo from baritone saxophonist Josie Simmons.

They ended with a new tune, not part of the suite, called A Shoal of Souls, enlivened by Ralph Wyld’s use of the coat-hanger bowing technique he must surely have learned from Jim Hart.

LINK: Preview of Polyhymnia from 2015

Categories: Live review

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