CD review

Yazz Ahmed – “Polyhymnia”

Yazz Ahmed – Polyhymnia
(RopeaDope Records. CD review by Paul Kelly)

Much of jazz is about solo instrumental imagination and prowess around a number of standard theme. But a far smaller group of composers and performers have shape-shifted the jazz idiom into altogether new forms and domains, extending the tradition in the process. In the pre and post-war era one thinks of Duke Ellington, in the ’40s and ’50s of Gil Evans, Charles Mingus and Eddie Sauter. In the ’60s, George Russell, Don Ellis, Carla Bley, and of course Miles Davis.

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In the late 1960s and through the 1970s British jazz extended itself well beyond the boundaries of its American origins. A series of jazz composers including Mike Westbrook, Graham Collier, Ian Carr, Mike Gibbs, Keith Tippett and Neil Ardley created long-form music that married jazz improvisation and origins with other influences to significant effect. It was a golden age of British jazz that deserves some re-evaluation.

I have enjoyed what little I have heard of British-Bahraini trumpeter Yazz Ahmed’s music since I ran across her in 2016. But nothing prepared me for the impact of her third album, Polyhymnia and its scale, breadth and imagination. It’s a large piece with a band of 25 mostly female musicians, that comfortably sits alongside the very best works of those great ’60s and ’70s British jazz composers.

Polyhymnia is a significant piece of work and I can’t recall hearing a large-scale composition as complex, sophisticated, layered, innovative and enthralling as this in ages. The work takes in a wide range of styles and influences but retains an overall flow throughout that gives it a feel of a suite, rather than just a series of big-scale compositions.

Named after the Greek muse of music, poetry, and dance, Polyhymnia celebrates five courageous women including Rosa Parks, Malala Yousafzai, the Saudi film director Haifa Al-Mansour, British jazz saxophonist Barbara Thomson plus a sixth piece commemorating the Suffragettes.

The opening piece, Lahan Al-Mansour, has an unsurprising Middle East feel with Ahmed’s trumpet dark and pensive backed by shimmering percussion evolving into a serpentine theme with jazz-rock undertones with a highly effective harmonised electric trumpet solo. Ruby Bridges, a tribute to the American civil rights activist, is soul-funk sass with a brass-line that reminded me of Mike Gibbs. One Girl Amongst Many starts with some gorgeous piano, moving into a stately theme with dark trumpet accompanying the impassive words of Malala Yousafzai spoken by the band in slow unison.

“2857” commemorates the bus that Rosa Parks took to protest against segregation in the American South. Starting with a tolling bass it features a sombre brass chorale, some pensive flugelhorn and a searching solo from tenor saxist Tori Freestone leading into an arpeggiated piano riff and a spacey melee of sound akin to Bitches Brew and featuring some of Ahmed’s electric trumpet.

Deeds Not Words, dedicated to the Suffragettes, is a rich shifting tapestry of sound with riffs, fanfares and brooding trumpet leading to a delightfully unexpected brief rendition of Men of Harlech.

The album closes with Barbara, a tribute to Britain’s own Barbara Thompson. It has a Neil Ardley-ish flavour of Eastern gamelan with bass clarinet, trumpet and electric piano playing call and response before moving into a gorgeous chorale with Ahmed’s lyrical trumpet soaring above.

Polyhymnia reveals Ahmed to have an excellent command of large musical forces. Her orchestrations are sophisticated, sensitive, multi-layered and continually absorbing. It will be interesting to see how Polyhymnia translates in a smaller band setting. But meantime celebrate the arrival of a significant new British jazz composer.

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