We talk to rising jazz star Yazz Ahmed, ahead of her performance with Southampton Youth Jazz Orchestra on Saturday 24 March.
When did you start to learn the trumpet?
It wasn’t until I moved to England from Bahrain that I was given the opportunity to learn a musical instrument. I was nine years old and starting at a new school in London. My mother asked me which instrument I’d like to learn and I instantly responded, ‘The trumpet’!
My maternal grandfather, Terry Brown, was a successful jazz trumpeter in the 1950’s. He played with John Dankworth, Tubby Hayes, and Ronnie Scott, amongst many others, and later became a record producer for Pye and then Phillips Records. He was a really important figure in my life so perhaps that’s why I was drawn to the trumpet. Terry gave me my first lesson and I’m very happy to say that I still have his trumpet, which he passed on to me once he saw that I was taking it seriously.
I read that your new album, La Saboteuse, is ‘a deep exploration of your mixed heritage’ – how do you think your childhood has affected your music?
Well, for a long time I had a sense of being incomplete – as if there was an element missing in my life. I think this stems back from when I started my new life in the UK with just my mum and sisters. For many years it felt like I had left half of myself in Bahrain. I felt a bit lost, I didn’t know where I fitted in and felt very alone. I’d almost forgotten my Arabic roots.
However, after graduating from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2006, I discovered the album Blue Camel by Rabih Abou-Khalil. The music on this album spoke to me at a subconscious level. Here were the long forgotten sounds and flavours of the music, which as a child in Bahrain, had deeply entered my psyche, but now blended with the jazz disciplines I had been studying for so long. Something really clicked and I felt compelled to explore this new world.
My very first experiments fusing Arabic scales and rhythms with jazz harmony can be heard on my debut album, Finding My Way Home. Since then I have been delving deeper into the complex, subtle and mysterious world of Arabic music, and particularly, Bahraini folk music.
Thanks to the support from Birmingham Jazzlines, I was able to embark on a research trip to Bahrain in order to study the secular folk music there – the songs of the pearl divers and the traditional wedding music of the women drumming groups.
This research inspired my suite, Alhaan Al Siduri, commissioned by Birmingham Jazzlines, and was performed at the CBSO Centre in 2015 and the Bahrain International Music Festival in 2016.
I also commissioned a unique quarter-tone flugelhorn, created and crafted by genius instrument maker, Leigh McKinney of Eclipse Trumpets. I wanted an instrument that would enable me to play truly centred quarter tones, the ‘blue notes’ in Arabic music, so that I could immerse myself more completely in exploring the expressive nuances of traditional maqams.
I am aware that I still have so much to learn about the various musical traditions from the Middle East – I have really only just dipped my toe in the water of a vast ocean.
My growing sense of identity and rediscovery of my roots have helped me to develop my own personal voice as a musician and composer.
What inspires you when you’re writing music?
Many things inspire me. Some of my compositions have been inspired by people or places which can take me on different journeys during the creative process.
For example, one of the movements from my Women of the World suite, Polyhymnia, was dedicated to Malala Yousafzai, which was inspired by her powerful and emotional speech at the United Nations some years ago. Her voice has a natural rhythm to it and so I wanted to reflect this through my composition by writing melodies to fit her words as well as including some short quotes that really resonated deep within me, which we then chanted during the premiere on International Women’s Day in 2015.
Another method I try is improvising on my trumpet over a drone from my drone box, which creates an everlasting pedal tone. This meditative practice gets me into a trance-like state and unlocks harmonies and melodies that seem hidden somewhere deep inside.
Lately I’ve been inspired by the great 13th century poet and mystic, Rumi. His poetry has sparked off many ideas, including the lyrics in my latest commission, An Ocean Formed of Stars, which explores the ever changing universe and the mysteries beyond.
How can jazz music stay relevant?
If it is to survive, then jazz must continue to evolve and I think there is a responsibility on artists to be inclusive and to look for ways to invite new listeners.
Artists such as Kamasi Washington, both in his collaborations with Kendrick Lamar and with the release of his debut album, The Epic, David Bowie’s collaboration with the Donny McCaslin band on Blackstar, Shabaka Hutchings work with The Comet Is Coming, and MOBO award winners Binker & Moses, who recently appeared on mainstream TV, are all reshaping jazz and reaching out to a new audience.
I think it’s important to be true to ourselves when creating music, to explore all genres and landscapes, and to take risks.
I also feel that jazz, as a hybrid art form, should sound different if it comes from London, Helsinki, Vancouver, Addis Ababa or Beijing, reflecting and absorbing local sounds and traditions.
Given that the project celebrates Miles Davis’ album Sketches of Spain, do you have any classic albums that you listen to? Or artists?
I’m not sure if these are classified as ‘classics’ but two albums I absolutely adore are Azimuth ’85, featuring one of my favourite trumpet/flugelhorn players, Kenny Wheeler, and Jon Hassell’s, Last Night The Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes In The Street, which has been massively influential to how I now hear and think about music.
I am also a fan of Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, Live Evil and Jack Johnson. All inspiring albums.
You’ve worked with Radiohead and These New Puritans among others. How do you balance the worlds of different genres?
I really enjoy playing all types of music and collaborating with other artists. I always feel that I learn a great deal from working in many different genres. I don’t think of it as a matter of balancing but more as an opportunity to connect with something new. I find this very enriching and inspiring, for example, I would never have dreamed of using electronic effects or manipulating prerecorded sounds if it weren’t for my work with people like Radiohead, These New Puritans, and Jason Singh.
The album was released in four chapters with each chapter having its own illustrations by Bristol artist Sophie Bass. Describe why this approach to creating the album (ie not just the music) was important…
The four parts, presented as chapters, combine to tell a story. There are several transitions along the way, as the music moves, in broad terms, from Eastern to Western harmony, from belly-dancing rhythms towards rock beats, from traditional melodies to more contemporary sounds and a general feeling of moving from darkness into light. However none of these shifts are clear cut and I hope that there are echoes and ghosts of all the elements as lines between genres become blurred.
The process in creating La Saboteuse has been a labour of love and we wanted to celebrate all the hard work that went into making this album by unravelling the story bit by bit, extending its life.
We had poured our hearts and souls into making this album and one quick release didn’t feel right. I think this really helped to build interest in the album, everyone involved from the musicians to the sound engineers and of course, the magnificent Sophie Bass, who’s incredible illustrations brought a whole element to La Saboteuse.
I felt quite overwhelmed when I saw her response to the first chapter, The Space Between the Fish and the Moon, it was so beautiful.
To quote Sophie’s thoughts about her experience she says, ‘The ebbs and flows within Yazz’s music are at once wild like the ocean’s tsunamis and as gentle as lapping waves in warm breeze. The motif of water kept coming back to me, of an oasis in the centre of a desert – a sign of hope or a hallucinatory trick of the mind. The whole album playing on the idea of your mind being against you, your internal voice gaining control. Water is at once purifying and life giving but also an element of total panic and fear. When I find my saboteur consuming me and am stuck in a place of self-doubt, anxiety and artists block – it’s like drowning. But equally I find my peace and recovery underwater in the bath where it feels quite magical.’
What advice would you give to a young musician?
The advice I would give is, don’t give up! If you truly want something and it means a lot to you, go for it, but be prepared to get knocked down from time to time. I’ve had many moments when I’ve wanted to give up, but my passion for music has always triumphed. My setbacks have made me a stronger and wiser person. I can’t imagine doing anything else besides music.
Yazz Ahmed appears at Turner Sims with Southampton Youth Jazz Orchestra on Saturday 24 March, when they explore the sound-world of Miles Davis through his classic album Sketches of Spain.