Yazz Ahmed’s Polyhymnia
(Sage Gateshead livestream 14 November 2020. Review by AJ Dehany)
Polyhymnia is the Greek Muse of sacred poetry, hymn and dance, a deep thinker credited with inventing the lyre, making her the first lyricist. Polyhymnia is composer-trumpeter Yazz Ahmed’s third album, a breathtaking suite that was originally commissioned by Tomorrow’s Warriors. It is dedicated to to female determination and courage. First performed on International Women’s Day it was thereafter developed over four years, with the album being released in 2019 to great acclaim. At the recent Jazz FM Awards Yazz Ahmed won both Best Jazz Act and Best Jazz Album.
The rich, Arabically-flavoured jazz textures Polyhymnia are created on record by a who’s-who ensemble of 25 musicians. The live-realisation pares some of the lush electronically saturated big band sound down while retaining the live intensity and energy of the full brass sound. The twelve-piece Hafla Ensemble or the Family Hafla (the name coming from an Arabic word meaning “friendly social gathering”) performed it at the Church of Sound at the end of February just before lockdown. For now, Yazz Ahmed’s concert streaming from Sage Gateshead was the last, the only, opportunity to hear the 12-piece band (at King’s Place this Thursday for the London Jazz Festival she will be playing with a quartet).
Polyhymnia will surely afford a lifetime of pleasure, while its live-streamed realisation from SAGE Gateshead is only available for 48 hours. Performing the complete album in an adjusted order, the sequence, sound and vision were of an engaging and high quality. The size of the band maybe helps it retain the visual interest for the viewer and for the musicians help generate the ‘Hafla’ feel of a gathering. It was originally intended to be a socially distanced show in the large Sage One hall, before Lockdown 2 saw to that. “It’s nice to play to someone out there!” said Yazz Ahmed. Large ensembles have of course been and might continue to be among the worst hit by the pandemic.
Despite the precarity of the summer, the group’s tight and unified group sound was impressive. Nat Facey and George Crowley both played typically exciting highlight solos, as did Yazz Ahmed herself. The recording of the album was originally intended to put a special focus on highlighting female talent, and while a few extra blokes have crept in to the live show it didn’t seem to dilute the message of the music too much. Aside from the musical fascinations of the compositions and the players, the social and political message of Polyhymnia is up front and vital, in keeping with the mood of the Black Lives Matter moment and all our attempts to steer toward a better world.
Tracks are dedicated to the desegregationist Ruby Bridges, Saudi Arabian film director Haifaa al-Mansour, the saxophonist Barbara Thompson; 2857 is the number of the bus on which Rosa Parks made her protest, and One Girl Among Many includes parts of the speech which Malala Yousafzai made to the UN on her sixteenth birthday. The encore to the suite was the satellite single A Shoal of Souls “dedicated to all of the lives lost crossing the Mediterranean in search of a better future”. It is to such a future that we are looking toward and hoping for right now.
AJ Dehany writes independently about music, art and stuff.ajdehany.co.uk
Miguel Gorodi trumpet/flugelhorn
Noel Langley trumpet
Owen Dawson trombone
Kate Ingram baritone
Nathaniel Facey alto sax
George Crowley tenor sax and bass clarinet<
Ralph Wyld vibraphone
Naadia Sheriff piano and keyboard
Dudley Phillips bass
Elizabeth Nott percussion
Sophie Alloway drums
Yazz Ahmed trumpet/ leader