British-Bahraini trumpeter, flugelhornist and composer Yazz Ahmed is a musician who has carved out an inimitable musical path for herself. John Fordham speaks to her ahead of International Women’s Day about her unique voice within jazz, the creative journey – including learning to work alongside the little anti-muse voice inside her head, and the “courageous” women who have inspired some of her most ambitious compositions.
Spring 2020 doesn’t look like it’s going down in the history books as a cheery passage in humanity’s occupancy of the planet – but as one light in the storm, the creativity of women at the sharp end of contemporary music already looks to be a heartening footnote for those with an ear turned turned in their direction.
Yazz Ahmed is one such fascinating talent. A self-effacing wild card who surfaced in 2012 with a strikingly fresh mix of classic-jazz, funk and Middle Eastern references on her debut Finding My Way Home, she has entered the new Twenties with a particularly personal angle on new jazz and the growing confidence of young women playing it.
Polyhymnia, a live big-band score Ahmed had originally written for an International Women’s Day concert in 2015, recently resurfaced in a spectacularly expanded form on an ambitious recording for the Ropeadope label. America’s famous Downbeat magazine called it “a first-rate, original album” from “one of the more creative voices in jazz”. Yazz Ahmed had swelled the lineup to 25 players for the studio version, diversifying the instrumental and improvisational voices, and drawing on electronic trumpet effects, dancefloor grooves, and the ideas of DJ/producers she had been discovering in recent times with her side-project, the all-improvising Electric Dreams. She also invited painter Sophie Bass to open other windows on the story in a series of vivid illustrations for the album’s artwork.
It was a radical and ambitious remake. But the central themes of Polyhymnia – celebrating female determination and courage through music inspired by six famous and not-so-famous examples, and named after the Greek female muse of poetry, hymn, and dance – remain at the core of this remarkable landmark in Yazz Ahmed’s composing life.
Ahmed’s role models for the project included Haifaa Al-Mansour, Saudi Arabia’s first female filmmaker – who had been compelled to direct Wadjda, her first feature film, by radio from inside a truck because the country’s laws wouldn’t allow a woman to run a film crew in public view. A personal Ahmed favourite from the jazz world, British jazz and contemporary-classical saxophonist/composer Barbara Thompson, also inspired one of the suite’s movements, as did Nobel prizewinning Pakistani female-education activist and unbowed survivor of a Taliban hit, Malala Yousafzai. The composer’s three inspirational examples from an earlier era were Britain’s women’s-vote campaigners the Suffragettes, and America’s 1950s civil rights legends Ruby Bridges and Rosa Parks.
“Writing the suite back in 2015 was a process of discovery for me,” Yazz says. “And those were the amazing women I discovered then. The traits they all seemed to share were determination and courage, absolute conviction about never giving up. Women activists have often been silenced or put down, and some of my choices were women who survived that, so I wanted to share their stories. If I were doing it all over again now, I think I’d include Greta Thunberg, because she seems to me one of the most inspirational examples at the present time of a young woman who won’t be silenced, and who decided to make a difference.”
Yazz Ahmed was born in 1983 in Bahrain and lived there until she was nine, when her parents separated and she and her British mother and four younger sisters moved to south London. When she talks about those early years, clues to the freewheeling spirit and independence that brought her musical life to its present eminence soon emerge.
“People might assume life in Bahrain was quite restricted,” Yazz reflects. “But it is more liberal compared to other countries in that area, and we weren’t brought up in any religious way although my dad’s Muslim. My sisters and I ran pretty free, though of course children were very protected there, not exposed to bad language or anything. I made up for that when I got to London! But our childhood at home was bohemian because my mum was quite a hippy, and still is. She had been a dancer, studied at the Royal Ballet School, and in the house she would play all sorts of music to us – Arabic music, reggae, jazz, as well as her favourite ballet pieces, such as The Rite of Spring. Her father was Terry Brown, who had been a trumpeter with the John Dankworth Seven in the 1950s, so she loved jazz. Music was all around the house, but although I sometimes tried to play my mum’s guitar and I had a drum, I didn’t have any particular thoughts about music then.”
Terry’s influence soon changed all that. “Music really started for me when we moved to London and I started music lessons at school,” she recalls. “I thought the trumpet looked and sounded like a really cool instrument, and it was my granddad who gave me my first trumpet lesson – I remember learning the C major scale in one lesson and feeling really proud of myself. He also gave me his own trumpet when I was a bit older and he’d retired from playing to become a producer. I soon found out that the trumpet’s a challenging instrument and can be very unforgiving, but I’ve always liked challenges. He also used to talk to me about his experiences on the road with John Dankworth, and all the famous people they’d met – including Dizzy Gillespie. He’d play me a lot of jazz records and I loved the spirit of the music.”
Yazz learned fast, and was soon playing in local youth bands in Merton – getting a glimpse of what being a real musician might feel like when she performed with youth ensembles at venues as prestigious as the Royal Albert Hall and the Wimbledon Tennis Championships. By her last year at sixth form college, the possibility of a life in music was dawning. She took a music degree at Kingston University, and in 2005 won a scholarship to study jazz at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. It was a demanding learning curve, and she was only too aware that she had chosen an instrument that confronted her with more than purely technical challenges.
“When I was in the youth bands there were a few female students, but hardly any on brass,” she recalls. “I think for many years, trumpet wasn’t seen as a suitable instrument for girls largely because of the lack of visible role models. In films, or even cartoons, the trumpet player would almost always be a man. There was a lack of opportunity and encouragement when I was at that stage, but this was 15 years or so ago and the landscape has changed massively for women in jazz since then. The Tomorrow’s Warriors educational organisation was hugely important for me and I really admire its founders Gary Crosby and Janine Irons, they’re the reason I’m here today. The producers Serious have also done a lot of work on this, and PRS, and Jazzlines in Birmingham, so women musicians can now get funding for their own projects. That’s a huge change.”
Yazz’s Guildhall years rapidly upped her game as a player and improviser, learning how to stay afloat in student lineups that were more accomplished than any she had encountered before. But new preoccupations about jazz’s identity and her own were beginning to surface. She began to reflect more and more on her childhood and origins in a very different culture, and on what that might mean in a contemporary jazz world in which the role models were still so often Americans.
“When I was at the Guildhall from 2005 to 2006, naturally the core curriculum focused on American jazz,” Ahmed observes. “Of course American musicians have been important inspirations – as Miles Davis has been for me – but simply to copy American music didn’t feel very authentic to me, or feel like what a jazz musician is supposed to be in terms of finding a personal identity. I thought ‘what am I missing’?”
When she graduated from the Guildhall in 2006, she quickly established a band of her own and began to compose. “I was desperate to get my voice heard, to say something personal, which in a crowded music scene, where everyone is shouting all at once, can be quite a challenge,” she later recalled of that period, in a conversation with Birmingham’s Jazzlines. At first she felt adrift, but probing deeper into her Bahraini roots increasingly helped Ahmed to navigate her own course.
Significantly, she discovered the Lebanese oud-player Rabih Abou-Khalil’s 1992 album Blue Camel, a reflective fusion of jazz and Arabian music that included the uniquely subtle sound of British trumpeter Kenny Wheeler. Wheeler’s pure sound, unhurried phrasing and distinctive harmonic sense is audible in Yazz’s playing today, but it was the Blue Camel sessions’ invitation to a musical world somewhere between her old world and her new one that helped to set her muse free.
In 2008, she began a series of recording sessions with electric bassist Janek Gwizdala, an old friend from her Merton youth-band years, experimenting with original compositions over Arabic scales, and a trumpet/bass duet on Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue classic, ‘So What’. The following year, the material for her debut album Finding My Way Home was completed by an Ahmed sextet that included an emerging British global-jazz star, reeds-player Shabaka Hutchings. The group opened the 2010 Brit Jazz Festival at Ronnie Scott’s Club to considerable acclaim, Ahmed played flugelhorn on Radiohead’s King of Limbs sessions, Jazzwise magazine tipped her as a rising star in 2011, and this unusual artist’s struggle to find her own path seemed finally to be revealing a world of new possibilities.
But it was the Polyhymnia concert at the Southbank Centre on International Women’s Day 2015 that still feels like a unique turning point. “It was a very exciting experience,” she remembers, “and I realised a lot of people felt very emotional about it afterwards, not just me. When we first did it, it was for a 13-piece all-female band. Last year, when recording it became possible, I wanted to introduce other favourites of mine, like Tori Freestone on saxophones and Alcyona Mick on piano. But I also didn’t want it to be an all-female project, I wanted to include other players I admire – like saxophonist George Crowley, and vibes-player Ralph Wyld, who both play in my live bands.”
All those resources come together to give Polyhymnia a rare power. But the ever-curious Ahmed wants to take the sound further still.
“I’m hoping to make a remix of it, as I did for my 2017 album La Saboteuse,” Ahmed says. “I like drawing in people from electronic music, because I often feel there are divides between jazz and other contemporary music when there shouldn’t be. Jazz can be a dirty word or even boring for some people, if they think the musicians only want to play acoustically and won’t experiment with more contemporary ideas. On the other side, some jazz players are suspicious of electronics. But I try to get involved with electronic musicians who like jazz, and jazz musicians who are open-minded. My side-project Electric Dreams is electronic, but it’s also completely improvised – which of course is incredibly exciting when it all goes right. A huge amount of being in that band is about listening, not trying to outdo each other.”
As we move towards our goodbyes, recalling La Saboteuse puts us both in mind of Yazz’s reasons for making that record, and for its title – an affectionately ironic acknowledgement of the doubts as well as the revelations of a creative artist’s life.
“I’m always trying to deal with La Saboteuse,” Yazz Ahmed laughs. “She’s my anti-muse, the voice in your head that everyone has, that keeps saying ‘you’re no good’. When I made that album, it felt very healing to reveal the inner destroyer I realised I have, and to deal with those thoughts by giving them a character. But I think she’s not all negative. Our saboteuses are trying to protect us from the pain of failure. But you have to fail sometimes, that’s how learning happens.”
UPCOMING GIGS: With DJ, producer and composer Hector Plimmer (Brownswood Bubblers) for a special live collaborative performance at the Elgar Room on 9 April