Earlier this week, British-Bahraini trumpet player Yazz Ahmed was recognised for her approach to jazz composition with an Ivor Novello Award for Innovation. Yazz combines the sounds of her mixed heritage through her music and, in recent years, has emerged as a distinctive voice on the UK Jazz scene, both as a soloist and composer.
Yazz’s highly anticipated third album Polyhymnia was released last year to critical acclaim. The project, which celebrates courageous women in history including Rosa Parks, Malala Yousafzai, the Saudi film director Haifa Al-Mansour and British jazz saxophonist Barbara Thomson, was voted Album of The Year at the 2020 Jazz FM Awards. Yazz went on to pick up Jazz Act of the Year on the same night.
M caught up with Yazz Ahmed to discuss an award-winning year, the stereotypes pinned to female jazz musicians and the importance of playing without fear.
'It’s nice to be recognised for all the hard work I’ve put into writing and performing. It’s also strange, because it doesn’t match the way I think about myself.'
Maya Radcliffe: How have you been coping with the lockdowns? You’ve had quite a busy few months it seems, despite everything that’s going on.
Yazz Ahmed: Yes, I suppose the first announcement really freaked me out. It knocked me sideways and I was really worried that I wouldn’t be able to cope. All my work just disappeared in front of my eyes. Amazingly, I got a few commissions and a few recording sessions, because I can record at home. Then I got two online gigs this month, one I’ve already one and one I’ve got tonight.
So, it hasn’t been as bad, but it’s like all your work disappearing and thinking, 'How on earth am I going to survive?' I’ve been quite lucky. I know that it’s been very, very tough on a lot of other musicians, especially those who work in theatres. A lot of people don’t have teaching or anything to fall back on, so yes, it’s been really tough for everyone.
Maya: Has it changed the way that you record, or were you doing it in the same kind of way previous to the pandemic?
Yazz: I’ve always recorded at home. I suppose yes, my partner and I, we’ve improved our skills, I think, when recording. We’ve had to do a lot of filming though as well. There are lots of people who want videos, as well, and that’s been quite a learning curve. We don’t have any fancy cameras, we just have our phones. That’s been a new skill.
Maya: Congratulations on winning the Ivor Novello Innovator Award. How does it feel to be receiving such a prestigious award? Anna Meredith famously won it last year, so it’s quite the accolade.
Yazz: Yes, when I got the email I thought, ‘Are they asking me to apply or did I actually win something?’ I didn’t want to believe it because like many musicians I don’t really think very highly of myself. I kind of instantly thought, ‘Oh no, this is nothing.’ I did send it to my manager and said, ‘Is this or real?’ I was incredibly excited and surprised. It’s nice to be recognised for all the hard work I’ve put into writing and performing. It’s also strange, because it doesn’t match the way I think about myself.
Maya: It’s an award for innovation and I was wondering what does ‘innovation’ mean to you within your music? Is it something that you are conscious of when you’re making it? Or is it just more of just a bi-product of the music you have created?
Yazz: I think I’ve always just done my thing and just got on with it. I’ve never thought that I’ve been doing anything innovative. It’s just my method and whatever works for me, things that I’m interested in, or people I find inspiring. So, yes, for me it’s nothing special, but obviously maybe to other people they see that I’m doing something different.
Maya: Do you have a certain philosophy or strategy that comes when you’re writing music? How has that developed since your debut back in 2011?
Yazz: Well, I think I’ve learnt lots of different techniques and found different ways of finding inspiration, and learning how to reveal my ideas slowly rather than just getting everything out and then there are no more ideas in my head, how to expand my ideas, and really work on just one little thing and let it grow. I’ve discovered technology, like using field recordings, and manipulating them and creating loops or backing tracks, and that helps me to come up with new ideas that I wouldn’t normally think of, you know, if I was just banging about on the piano, or improvising on my trumpet. So, technology has been quite a major influence in the way I write music, definitely.
Maya: When you first started out did you ever expect that technology would be so ingrained in the music that you create?
Yazz: Definitely not. When I was in my early 20s I thought, ‘I’m not going to use electronics.’ I thought it was maybe a bit gimmicky at the time. Then, I realised actually they add more colours to my writing, or to my sound when I’m playing live. There’s just an unbelievable number of options and paths you can take when you’re writing music. Yes, I embrace it now, definitely.
Maya: I suppose that probably plays into the innovation side of your music as well, whether you mean it to or not.
Yazz: Yes, I guess so, yes.
Maya: You also took home two awards at the Jazz FM Awards. So, it was Jazz Act of the Year and Album of the Year. Were you expecting to have such a bumper night?
Yazz: Yes, I had a kind of inkling that maybe I had won something because they asked me to perform. It was a complete surprise that I had won the Album of the Year. I didn’t think that that would have happened, because I was up against, you know, amazing musicians like Branford Marsalis, massive names. Little me, my little music managed to get an award, so yes, I felt very emotional. I didn’t want to cry in front of everyone, so I tried to be really cool.
Maya: You’re very humble about it. When you say, ‘Little me with my little music,’ it seems like you really don’t, necessarily, see it in the same way that other people do.
Yazz: I’m just doing what I do and what I know.
Maya: Well, it’s working. Tell me about the album. The reaction seems to have been so overwhelmingly positive. I’ve actually taken a quote from one of the reviews that I read. ‘I can’t recall hearing a large-scale composition as complex, sophisticated, innovative and enthralling as this in ages’, which is pretty glowing. So, can you talk me through the writing process and the concept of the album?
Yazz: So, Tomorrow’s Warriors commissioned me to write something for International Women’s Day in 2015. I wanted to do something inspired by women. Te ‘Suite’ is a celebration of courageous and female role models and the paths they’ve taken and the changes they’ve made in history. I wrote music that was inspired by their lives, all the music that surrounded them, or using techniques I’ve never really used before.
For the piece I wrote dedicated to Malala Yousafzai, I watched her speech she recited at the United Nations in 2013. I picked sentences that really resonated with me, and words that I found very powerful. Listening to the tone of her voice, you know, and rhythms, her voice is very musical. So, I wrote little melodies based on these quotes. So, the performance went really well. It was performed by The New Civilisation Orchestra, which was part of Tomorrow’s Warriors. The performance went so well I wanted to record it.
I got funding from PRS Foundation and we went into the studio a year later. We recorded everything and then I developed it as we went along, adding more players and changing the arrangements a little bit as well, you know, re-recording here and there. It is what it is now. There was a lot of hard work that went into it.
Maya: Your funding was the Women Make Music Fund, wasn’t it?
Maya: How does funding like that impact your career progression?
Yazz: Oh, it helps so much. It gives you confidence and it makes you feel like, ‘Okay, I’m doing something right.’ It spurs you on to achieve what you have set out to do. Obviously financially it really helps - I could concentrate only on writing. I really needed it at that time, because I only had six weeks to write the music before the first rehearsal. It also paid for the musicians so not only does it support me and my career, but it also supports those who play the music. It’s a great way of sharing.
Maya: Going back to the album, I listened to an interview that you did a little while ago. You mentioned that people can often think that women are inferior when it comes to jazz, which I think that, it’s safe to say, that probably stretches across quite a lot of genres, but we won’t go there. The album is a celebration of female courage and determination, was that in any way influenced by this kind of casual sexism that you experience as a jazz artist, whether that’s directly or indirectly?
Yazz: Yes, I think indirectly maybe. I mean, I suppose I wasn’t totally aware of sexism really. I kind of grew up with it but never really thought about it. Doing this project brought my awareness to how women are treated in jazz, and how people’s perceptions of what female musicians sound like, or should behave like. It was a really good way of opening my eyes and taking a look at reality.
Maya: I’m interested to know, just for our readers that aren’t that au fait with jazz, what is the stereotype of what a female jazz musician should look like and sound like, as you just mentioned?
Yazz: When people think of a female jazz musician they think of the singer. Nobody ever thinks of a trumpet player, or a trombone player because they’re seen as very masculine instruments, they’re very loud and in your face. Women are seen as polite and don’t want to get stuck in. Also, it is terrible. I remember seeing this Facebook thread of a, and I won’t go into names, but a female jazz musician. She was playing beautifully well and nobody commented on her playing, they all commented on what she was wearing. She was wearing a really pretty dress and I was thinking, ‘Oh wow, I wish I had that courage to wear something as beautiful as that.’ They were just criticising her for what she was wearing. You can never win. It’s dreadful. You don’t hear that about men.
'It’s been quite a learning curve. I’ve had to really kind of push myself and to just take that risk and try not to worry about things going wrong, and keep going. We need failure to improve...'
Maya: Good. Do you feel as though you’re making a point with the music you make, that you are willing to get ‘stuck in?’
Yazz: Yes, it’s taken a long time. When I was younger, I felt very intimidated by my male peers, and I think it’s mainly the competitive nature in jazz, especially when you go to jam sessions as a young female player. I think, naturally, because we’re sort of seen as inferior, we don’t want to get things wrong when we get onstage. We’re scared of being ridiculed. Not everyone feels that way, but it’s just something that I felt and I see in younger female players when they’re in their jam session. They kind of hold back and they don’t want to join in, because they’re scared of living up to that stereotype.
It’s been quite a learning curve. I’ve had to really kind of push myself and to just take that risk and try not to worry about things going wrong, and keep going. We need failure to improve, so yes, I try to think of those things. It’s taken a while to get that confidence, definitely.
Maya: If you were to give a young, female jazz musician a piece of advice, or a couple of key pieces of advice what would they be?
Yazz: Play without fear and practice like mad, because people will judge you, unfortunately. If you get out there and you sound great and then nobody can say anything negative. Sadly, it’s not the same for a lot of male players, but yes, in this day and age, unfortunately, you have to be the best.
Maya: I wanted to speak to you about about the jazz 'revival' as it were, which, I imagine, is something that jazz musicians are probably sick of hearing. There are a lot more contemporary artists like yourself, of course. You’ve got Moses Boyd, Nubya Garcia and tonnes more that really seem to be breaking into the mainstream. What do you put this modern resurgence down to, or would you agree that there has been a resurgence and do you think it’s always been there?
Yazz: I think jazz has always been there. It’s always been very innovative and people are always creating interesting music. I think music platforms have played a big role in spreading the word of jazz, with all the algorithms and suggesting sounds and pieces, and composers or whatever artists you might like. I think that’s been one of the things that have helped to get jazz to younger ears. Also, I think a lot of jazz musicians are also going through different routes, you know, moving away from the traditions but keeping that tradition, but also exploring that with modern music. It might be hip-hop, or it might be music you hear in clubs like house music or jungle, or whatever.
I think people are trying to modernise it and take it in different ways that, maybe, you wouldn’t expect jazz to go down. So, I think, yes, people are being more progressive.
Lots of people would like jazz if they were given the opportunity to listen to it. A lot of it, I think, is very accessible. Also, I think a lot of listeners want to be challenged if it is something that’s very free and angry, or whatever. It’s emotional and we all can relate to something.
Maya: Is there anything new that you’re working on at the moment that you want to give a little plug, or anything that we should be keeping an eye, or ear, out for?
Yazz: I’ve been working on my remix EP and the digital version is out. The vinyl campaign is coming to an end, but the vinyl will be released next year. I’m working on my next band album with music inspired by traditional Bahraini music. I think it’s going to be a really fun album.