Yazz Ahmed’s music can best be described as an amalgamation of middle-eastern folk and cool jazz. Her recent album, La Saboteuse, combines her influences and experiences as a jazz and session trumpeter with entrancingly alien Arabic scales and grooves, creating a fluid sound world that transports the listener straight inside her mind. This marriage of the east and west is fascinating enough when recorded, but at the Dora Stoutzker Hall at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, Yazz’s music took on new meaning. Her Hafla (an Arabic word meaning get-together, party or family gathering) band is comprised of a stellar cast of musicians, featuring George Crowley on bass clarinet, Naadia Sherriff on piano and keyboards, Ralph Wyld on vibes, Dudley Phillips on electric bass, Corrina Silvester on percussion and Martin France on drums.
Thom It’s lovely to meet you. How has touring the music been?
Yazz Ahmed It’s been really fun, we’ve been playing at some really cool places and we’ve got lots of fun gigs coming up.
T I know you’ve got a really busy schedule; Lisbon, Paris, Stockholm and Love Supreme I believe?
T Is that going to be with the same lineup?
Y It will be slightly different; everyone is the same except for George, he’s unavailable, so I’ve got Samuel Hällkvist playing guitar.
T And Dudley, Martin and Naadia of course were all on the album.
Y And Corrina. Ralph and George weren’t on the album.
T You’ve worked with George and Ralph before, haven’t you?
Y Yeah, loads of times. I mean, Ralph has been in all of the different formations I have. He’s in the trio and quartet, quintet and the seven-piece, and George I’ve known a long time. He’s always depped for Shabaka, and Shabaka’s like, this massive star now, so it’s hard to get hold of him. So George has been brilliant, and he plays so beautifully.
T I actually caught George recently; he came to Cardiff touring his own music.
Y Oh yeah!
T Yeah, with his trio with Tim Giles, at the Flute and Tankard, and they were amazing. In any case, I heard you’d visited Bahrain, and that the track on the album ‘Al Emadi’ is about your family connections to the Al Emadi tribe?
Y It’s only a fairly recent discovery, I think. Somebody from the family traced back our history and we come from this tribe called the Al Emadi tribe. The history of the family is that we come from merchants, who would trade across Iran, Bahrain and Qatar, and most of the tribe, they live in Qatar at the moment. That’s from my grandfather’s side; I don’t know about my grandmother’s side, because she’s from another tribe. But yeah, it’s really interesting to know that you’re from… There’s more of you, there’s a bigger family out there.
T That must be really inspiring, especially when you’re trying to build that connection in your own music.
Y Mm-hmm. Actually I met one of my Al Emadi tribe cousins over the internet. Somebody who booked me who works with BBC Arabic, she booked me to do a gig and she found out she knew my third cousin! It was really cool, and we got to meet for the first time, they came to the UK, and it was really nice meeting a distant relative.
T And of course your English grandfather was Terry Brown, who played with Ronnie Scott; you’ve said before that he was the inspiration for you to pick up the trumpet.
Y Definitely, I owe a lot to him. He gave me my first trumpet lesson, and I played his trumpet for a while. He was a big influence and inspiration.
T So, in terms of musical development, in “Finding My Way Home” you’re exploring your Arabic influences, as well as hinting towards the sounds of Miles Davis. Was that, for you, the “act of exploration”; the act of attempting to weave in your Arabic influences?
Y Yeah, yeah. I mean, it was a funny album because it kind of happened by accident. I wasn’t thinking of making an album, I just got in the studio and tried some ideas out, explored some Arabic scales and wrote some tunes for me and Janek Gwizdala to play, and it kind of evolved from that really. It was the starting point to my exploration, my journey. And I’m still exploring, still learning; I’ve got my quarter-tone flugelhorn which I’m still experimenting with, still learning how to play.
T I’ve actually talked to Leigh at Eclipse about that. I’m an Eclipse player myself, managed to get one a couple years back. That must be really interesting to play and interesting to get your mind around?
Y Yeah, it’s a very hard instrument because as trumpet players, when we play a note that’s out of tune, we try and tune them with our mouth, and these quarter-tones, I have to really think hard and just blow through the instrument and not try to automatically tune, because it sounds a bit rubbish if you’re doing that; you have to let the quarter-tone really sing, otherwise it sounds like you’re playing out of tune. Do you know what I mean?
T Yeah, I know exactly what you mean.
Y It’s an air thing and you can hear if someone’s squashing the sound. It’s a challenge, but I’m enjoying it, because it means there’s more note choices for a start.
T Between Finding My Way Home and La Saboteuse, you created a six-part suite featuring an all-female ensemble called Polyhymnia.
T Well, I heard a little bit of chatter that you might be recording it?
Y Yeah! It’s not quite finished, we’re sort of 80% there; we haven’t got any trombone, need to do the trombone part, some extra trumpet bits and some more electronics, gonna redo some bits and pieces but it’s nearly there, and hoping to release it next year, maybe January/February, that kind of time, early next year. So it’s in the works.
T And that was inspired by powerful female figures, wasn’t it? Rosa Parks, Malala Yousafzai… Could you tell me a little bit more about that?
Y Umm, okay. So it was commissioned by Tomorrow’s Warriors, specially for the Women of the World Festival, that’s when it was premiered, on International Women’s Day, so a really special occasion. It was a very interesting process, because I was writing music inspired by these people, rather than just coming from me solely, you know? The piece I wrote inspired by Malala, I watched her UN speech on YouTube and I took little quotes that I thought were quite powerful. Her voice is very rhythmic, so I made melodies out of these quotes, and so the music flows from her speech. And also, the piece that I dedicated to the Suffragettes, there’s a little bit of one of their anthems that they sang, which is Shoulder To Shoulder, which is actually from the tune Men Of Harlech. So I took little bits from it and I kind of… Arabic’d it up a bit, you know! I added some harmonic minor elements to it, and kind of tried to make it like a bit of me, as well as honouring these ladies and their struggle and their courage. It was a really interesting way to compose, because I actually had people in mind to write about and to write for. It was good!
T Is there a release date yet?
Y It’ll be early 2019, but before that I actually have a remix EP coming out. There are three tracks from La Saboteuse that have been remixed. The first track comes out at the end of this month (July). That was a really interesting experience because there are a lot of really bad remixes out there, and a lot of people just send their tracks and they get back the same thing but with a beat underneath. But these guys have been really creative, they’ve deconstructed the music and recomposed it, so I’m really pleased with it! I hope that people who like jazz will like these guys and vice versa, bringing audiences together, and hopefully more people will be introduced to the album and introduced to jazz, and see that jazz is actually kinda cool!
T That’s also something that’s not done often with a jazz record, it’s fairly rare for there to be remixes, especially for something as unique as your music.
Y Mmm. It is rare, but the thing is, if you go back to early hip-hop, that music was sampled from Ahmad Jamal, Motown horn section tunes, those kind of things! I hope that people will appreciate that.
T So coming back to tonight, will we expecting to hear music mainly from La Saboteuse?
Y Umm, no! There’ll be a good mixture of stuff, so you’ll hear some pieces from La Saboteuse obviously, some pieces from Polyhymnia and some pieces from Alhaan al Siduri, which is my Birmingham Fellowship suite, which I wrote in 2015, and was inspired by Bahraini folk music.
T You’ve collaborated a lot with pop artists such as Radiohead, These New Puritans and the tracks Bloom and Organ Eternal are your own arrangements of their tunes. Did you find that experience inspiring?
Y Yeah, I chose those tunes because I thought that they would fit my band really well, and I could do my own take and build improvisations from those themes. I think this kind of music and easily be blended into modern day jazz as well. And again, it’s a nice way to bring audiences together. People who are Radiohead fans have discovered my music, and the same with people who love These New Puritans, because of this relationship.
T The versions on your album really tie in with the fluidity of the whole thing; it doesn’t at all sound out of place.
Y No it doesn’t, I suppose it’s because we’re playing it all in our way, in the same mindset.
T Well thank you very much. I’m very much looking forwards to the gig.
Y No, thank you! I hope you enjoy it. I’d better go get changed then!
Interview conducted by Thom Voyce for Echo Music