Re-Posted From The Gardian
The acclaimed musician and composer mixes jazz with traditional Arabic rhythms and has worked with Radiohead and These New Puritans, creating a sound that reflects her heritage
Yazz Ahmed once wrote that the question she was most sick of hearing was: “Are you the singer?” It was the only way many people could make sense of her place as a woman in jazz. These days – following her critically acclaimed 2017 album La Saboteuse, playing flugelhorn for Radiohead and touring with These New Puritans – you suspect the trumpeter and composer doesn’t have to correct too many people. Ahmed is one of a number of artists, including many women, who have emerged in what has been described as a British jazz explosion, fuelled by younger, more diverse, experimental musicians such as Shabaka Hutchings, Moses Boyd and Sheila Maurice-Grey and Nubya Garcia’s collective Nérija.
Audiences are also becoming younger and more diverse, far removed from jazz’s weighty reverence and stereotypical snobbery of old. It is an exciting time, says Ahmed. High-profile collaborations, such as Kamasi Washington’s work with Kendrick Lamar, have brought jazz to a new audience, while streaming services have made it easier for younger people to discover different music. “It is being played in a lot of different venues now, it’s not just at typical jazz clubs. We’re hearing it in nightclubs, festivals, churches, underground clubs,” she says, when we speak on the phone. Younger musicians are bringing a fresh energy and experimentalism, and “jazz musicians are trying to reflect the culture of today,” she tells me. “Some people are political, some are reflecting other types of music and mixing that together with their own compositions, and people are exploring more deeply their personal backgrounds.” Shabaka Hutchings’s band, Sons of Kemet, whose music crackles with influences from Caribbean soca to London grime, are a good example, she says. “The essence is still jazz, and that’s appealing for people who think they don’t like jazz.
Her own music is a mix of the jazz she studied and traditional Arabic rhythms and melodies from her heritage. She was born in London to a British ballerina mother and Bahraini engineer father, with the family moving to Bahrain soon afterwards. When she was nine, Ahmed and her sisters returned to London with their mother. Her maternal grandfather, Terry Brown, was a jazz trumpeter and record producer in the 50s, and when Ahmed was given the choice of taking up an instrument at her new school, she chose the trumpet, “mainly because of my granddad. And it looked fun, it sounded great.” Her mother’s taste in music – jazz giants such as Dizzy Gillespie and Tubby Hayes, as well as reggae and classical music – was an influential soundtrack to her childhood.
Following a masters degree at Guildhall School of Music & Drama, having already had lessons with renowned jazz tutor Nick Smart, Ahmed started to compose for the quintet she had put together. “I definitely wanted to create music that was personal to me,” she says. “I think I was interested in telling my story but not knowing how to do that.” She was inspired by the 1992 album Blue Camel by experimental Lebanese oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil. “I found it because it featured my favourite trumpet player of all time, Kenny Wheeler,” says Ahmed. “I was really intrigued by it because it was a mixture of Arabic and jazz music. I found it incredibly inspiring and I never thought I could mix the two different styles together. That spurred my creativity and imagination to mix my heritage together, musically, to reflect my cultural background.” Traditional music had been part of her Bahraini childhood, “but I don’t think I thought about it much until I discovered this album,” she says. She went back to listen to traditional Arabic music, as well as pop songs coming out of the gulf states. “In Arabic music, there are quite a lot of rules to follow but there’s also a lot of improvisation. Obviously with jazz there is room to express yourself, so I think they blend really well together, not just on a musical level but in an emotional way.”
Her work has attracted the attention of other musicians. She has worked with Joan As Police Woman, Radiohead and These New Puritans – the latter gave her a lesson in how to use a Kaoss Pad, the audio manipulator, and she says working with Radiohead “was very inspiring and opened up my eyes and ears to using technology in live performance, and using the studio as a compositional tool, manipulating pre-recorded sounds.” An EP of her tracks is about to be released, comprising remixes of her compositions. Next year will see a recording of a suite she created for the Southbank’s Women of the World festival, with six movements inspired by some of Ahmed’s heroes: Malala Yousafzai, Rosa Parks, the suffragettes, the Saudi film-maker Haifaa al-Mansour, civil rights activist Ruby Bridges and saxophonist Barbara Thompson. There are 13 musicians playing on the album already, she says with a laugh, and the number keeps growing.
“I do feel that the makeup of jazz is changing,” she says, on the number of women making waves in the genre. She remembers as a student being intimidated by the older male musicians, but also by the younger ones, she says, who tended “to be quite competitive and very up for who can play the highest, the loudest, the fastest. In my experience, I feel that a lot of women are more interested in collaborating and making music together rather than showing off.” There has been strength in growing numbers, as well as support from organisations such as Tomorrow’s Warriors and the PRS Foundation’s Women Make Music programme. “It is changing people’s perceptions of what a female jazz musician is and what they do,” she says.
Yazz Ahmed plays at Womad this 29 July. Her EP La Saboteuse Remixed is out on 17 August (Naim Records)