yazz ahmed jazz

Yazz Ahmed

'New listeners are drawn to the honesty and authenticity of jazz – it’s not fake and it’s not trying to sell you something': Yazz Ahmed on the growing appeal of the genre...

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 9 Jan 2018
  • min read
British-Bahraini wunderkind Yazz Ahmed is one of jazz’s brightest new stars, a fact not lost on Radiohead, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Joan As Policewoman and These New Puritans, who have all tapped her distinct style.

Alongside these world-class collaborations, Yazz's globe-trotting trumpeting experience and radical composing styles are helping set the genre on a fresh new course.

Last November’s La Saboteuse album showcased her journey so far, bringing bags of space age textures and future-thinking composition to a genre already bursting with innovation.

Now the PRS Foundation-supported composer is taking her spellbinding sound to New York for the Winter JazzFest tomorrow (Wednesday).

She’ll be performing at the BBC Introducing and PRS Foundation event, hosted by Gilles Peterson, alongside rising talents Nubya Garcia, Oscar Jerome and The Comet is Coming.

We caught up with her before she made the trip to learn more about her expansive sound, rare influences and thoughts on UK jazz...

What music did you grow up listening to?

I grew up listening to all sorts of music and I still do. My mother trained as a ballet dancer and therefore had a large repertoire of classical music to share – The Rite of Spring being her favourite. She was also a massive reggae fan!

However, jazz was introduced to me by my maternal grandfather, Terry Brown, who was a successful jazz trumpeter in the fifties, performing with John Dankworth, Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Scott and many others. He later became a record producer working with a wide range of musicians including Acker Bilk, Graham Collier and Harry Beckett. I was exposed to a rather eclectic range of musical styles, not forgetting all the sounds from Bahrain that entered my psyche as a child.

How did you find your way to the trumpet?

When I moved to England, 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’!

I looked up to my grandfather, he was my hero, and so naturally the trumpet was the instrument I was drawn to.

When did you first begin composing?

After graduating from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2006, I set up my own band and started writing music for us to play. I felt a need to communicate my feelings and tell my own story. I was desperate to get my voice heard, to say something personal, which, in a crowded music scene, with everyone shouting for attention at the same time, was quite a challenge.

How has your music evolved since then??

It took me quite a while to find my true voice, and although always evolving, it really started when I began rediscovering my Bahraini roots.

My first compositions were quite derivative of the kind of music I’d been studying, influenced by Blue Note musicians like Joe Henderson and Woody Shaw.

However, I began to feel that something was missing from my musical landscape, playing this kind of music didn’t feel authentic to my life experience. Then one day I more or less stumbled across a record that changed my perspective on jazz.

The music on Blue Camel, by oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil, spoke to me at a subconscious level. Here were the sounds and flavours of the music I grew up with, 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.

Reconnecting with the music of my childhood home has been a major inspiration to me both in my life and in the way I write music.

You meld loads of different sounds and styles into your work – is that a conscious thing or a product of your influences??

It’s a bit of both really. I take inspiration from all my musical and life experiences, the people I work with, the countries I visit and the sounds I hear in everyday life. Thanks to the opportunities I’ve had performing and recording in the fields of rock, ambient music and sound design, I’ve been introduced to some incredible musicians. Jason Singh and These New Puritans in particular stirred my imagination. My tastes have developed and I’ve now reached a point where I feel I have discovered a very personal new sound.

Jazz is in great health at the moment – why do you think that is???

Well there are many different factors. Perhaps one of the changes in recent years are the multitude of different listening platforms, such as Spotify, Soundcloud, YouTube and Bandcamp. These all offer curious people the chance to go on a listening safari and make their own discoveries.

People all over the world can now be exposed to music they would never normally hear and there is something wonderful about building your own musical connections. Perhaps new listeners are drawn to the honesty and authenticity of jazz – it’s not fake and it’s not trying to sell you something.

You’ve been outspoken about the gender imbalance in jazz – how do you see the landscape in 2018? Are attitudes beginning to change???

There have been so many fantastic articles discussing these issues recently, which I feel has raised awareness of the gender imbalance in jazz and therefore a positive spark has been lit. This gives me a great deal of confidence that this message will continue to spread in 2018. We’ve still got a long way to go, but attitudes are changing and things are definitely moving forward.

What more needs to be done?

We all need to champion female musicians and composers. Give them encouragement and opportunities. But the problem is deep lying, it starts at a young age when, as I found myself, aspiring young musicians see no female role models and simply don’t consider a career in music as an option.

There are some forward-thinking promoters out there. For example, I played at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 2016 and they were very proud of the fact that they programmed 50/50 male/female bandleaders.

Another thing I’d like to see adopted is for people to drop the prefix, female, from the words musician, composer and bandleader. When was the last time Wynton Marsalis was introduced as a ‘male trumpet player’…

How do you feel about performing at the Winter JazzFest at the PRS Foundation and BBC Introducing showcase??

I’m so excited to be playing at the festival, it’s really like a dream come true. I was also very interested to discover that this year's festival has a focus on social, racial, and immigration justice as well as gender rights, subjects I feel very passionate about.

As a female trumpet player, with an Arabic name, I hope that through my music I can bring people together, building bridges between cultures, being an advocate of peace and changing perceptions about women in jazz and about people of Muslim heritage. These are not subjects I shout about through my music, perhaps it’s more of a quiet catalyst, an invitation for people to notice something different.

What else is keeping you busy in 2018?

I am working towards completing the recording of my suite, Polyhyhmnia, commissioned by the Tomorrow’s Warriors, with the help of PRS Foundation Women Make Music for the Women of the World Festival in 2015.

This is a major undertaking as it’s written for a fourteen-piece ensemble and the recording has only been made possible thanks to the support of PRS Foundation, which I am extremely grateful for. I think I’m about 70 percent of the way through, but as usual with my projects, the music is evolving and morphing during the process, with new elements being added in response to the work in progress.

I’m hoping to be able to make an announcement about the release schedule very soon.