Yazz Ahmed: ‘It’s changing people’s perceptions that women can be exceptional musicians and composers’

Trumpeter Yazz Ahmed has a new album out ahead of her appearance at Hull Jazz Festival. She spoke about it to DUNCAN SEAMAN.

Yazz Ahmed

Trumpet player Yazz Ahmed’s third album Polyhymnia grew out of a commission for the jazz talent development agency Tomorrow’s Warriors.

The brief was to write a piece of music for the Women of the World Festival, which takes place annually at the Southbank Centre in London.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

“I went and did some research, letting the ideas flow, and then I came to conclusion that I would write about women that I find inspiring and who are courageous and have made a real change in our lives,” explains the 36-year-old British-Bahrani musician.

Yazz Ahmed

“I discovered new people I’d never heard of, I also wrote about women I already knew about like Malala Yousafzai, so that’s where it started, and it was really fascinating learning the history about these women. It really formed the ideas and the styles I wanted to play around with to compose these pieces.”

Ahmed’s internet research led her to the American civil rights activists Ruby Bridges and Rosa Parks. “Somebody shared a little article about her from a Facebook group called Mighty Girls, it’s a platform for parents who have young daughters who are looking for role models and to educate them that there are these amazing women and girls out there to aspire to.

“I found out about Rosa Parks while doing some research when I was writing a piece which was inspired by Oh King, that was inspired by Martin Luther King. I found this podcast on the BBC and they also mentioned Rosa Parks, so that’s how I learnt about her.”

She says she finds Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai “incredibly inspiring and brave, I knew about her through the news”. Another subject, the Saudi Arabian film director Haifaa al-Mansour, she found while looking through Arabic films – “I stumbled across her and found her fascinating”.

The 12-piece band that Ahmed will bring to Hull and York on her autumn tour includes some of the large cast of musicians who played on the record. “It features some of the musicians from the album, some of whom played at the premiere of the piece in 2015, and then some of them are musicians that I just love playing with. It’s a really nice mixture of friends and people from my musical family.”

Aside from that ensemble, the trumpet player also has an ongoing side project called Electric Dreams. “That has been going on for a few years but we’re kind of a secret band,” she says. “We only play once or twice a year. The idea behind it is exploring jazz and electronic music and improvisation and where it can take us. It’s conversational music, we have time to express ourselves. I love that about jazz, it can take you to different places. We use electronics, it’s really fun experimenting with pedals and effects units, it just adds different colours and new sounds to acoustic instruments. You can create something unique.”

Growing up, Ahmed “loved all the American greats like Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis”, but there were British musicians too “like Tubby Hayes and Jimmy Deuchar – that’s from my grandfather’s side, he was a jazz trumpet player in the 50s and record producer, he introduced me to a lot of music.

“I suppose when I reached my 20s,” she adds, “I realised there weren’t many female jazz instrumentalists out there. It felt a bit strange, I started to feel quite alone, I didn’t have anyone to look up to, aspire to or somebody to encourage me and I found a Canadian trumpet player called Ingrid Jensen, she really made a difference in the way I think about trumpet playing and my drive to become a jazz trumpet player, she gave me hope that women can become professional jazz trumpet players rather than just a singer.”

As well as her own projects, Ahmed has found herself much in demand as a session player with the likes of Radiohead, Nile Rodgers, ABC and These New Puritans. She likes the scope it offers her. “It’s always fun for one thing,” she says. “It’s nice to play different music. Also it’s an opportunity to learn about different types of music and to play in a different style, it’s very enriching. I’ve learnt so much from playing with people like Radiohead and These New Puritans, for example using things like field recordings for new ‘found sounds’. I’ve been using those in my own compositions and using the studio as a compositional tool, like editing and looping things, and using electronics. Jazz doesn’t have to be just instrumental, it can be multi-dimensional and use different techniques better beyond tradition. I’ve got other ideas of collaborations coming up as well.”

Ahmed’s much praised second album, La Saboteuse, featured the quarter tone flugelhorn, an instrument she had specially developed. “It was an absolute experiment. I asked the guy who makes my trumpets, Leigh McKinney, if he could help me build a quarter tone flugelhorn for a piece I was writing when I became an LSO Soundhub composer. He’d never made one before and didn’t really know how to make a quarter tone instrument so there was a lot of trial and error. The first instrument didn’t quite work and there was a lot of swearing involved but eventually we got it right and it sounds beautiful. I feel very lucky, it’s one of a kind, I’m very grateful for that.”

The idea behind it was to reach what she describes as “blue notes” in Arabic music. “They’re the emotional notes. They’re very reminiscent of our voices when we sing and express our feelings, those notes are very deep within us in the human soul. I love those notes. It’s just another way of being expressive and getting a story across.”

The psychedelic Arabic jazz of La Saboteuse made an international impact, something that took Ahmed by surprise. “The last album [Finding My Way Home] I released on my own, I didn’t have a label behind me or a PR company or anything. That got little mentions here and there in the jazz press but nothing outside of the little jazz bubble. La Saboteuse was released on Naim and I had record label support, they were a bit more knowledgeable than I, so it went far and wide. I was really surprised. It got picked up in heavy metal and hip-hop blogs and played on radio stations.

“There was one internet radio station that involved guys playing music but at the same time drinking beer, as the programme progressed they all got drunker and drunker, so when it got to my track it was, ‘wow, this is so spacey, man’. It got through a lot of channels and I was totally surprised and really happy to get such positive feedback for music that I’d worked really hard at.”

Ahmed feels the current jazz scene in this country is “very vibrant” but, she says, “it’s never been expressed in mainstream media”. “I think all the publicity jazz has been getting recently has really boosted us, it’s shown people that jazz is really cool. It’s fantastic, people are now seeing how wonderfully diverse jazz is. It’s wonderful to be part of the scene. A friend of mine was saying it’s like the Roaring Twenties when jazz was really big, and it’s 2020 next year so that’s quite nice it’s repeated itself.”

One thing that is slowly changing too is gender equality in jazz. It’s something that Ahmed has been working to achieve in her own ensembles. “There are wonderful organisations like PRSF and Tomorrow’s Warriors doing their bit to nurture the next generation and it’s been working, with the support that’s been put behind young female musicians and composers,” she says. “They’re getting more exposure now and showing that we are out there. It’s also changing people’s perceptions that women can be exceptional musicians and composers, it’s not just the guys.

“There’s this Keychange programme where the goal is to have 50:50 male and female-led bands and festivals and venues etcetera. It’s a really positive thing and it’s lovely to see this happening because women have a voice and it’s sad for people not to hear those voices. Women make up 50 per cent of society so it’s important.”

Polyhymnia is out now. Yazz Ahmed plays at Hull Jazz Festival on November 14 and The Crescent, York on November 15. www.yazzahmed.com