[INTERVIEW] Soul Speak #12: Yazz Ahmed

The UK jazz scene is a beautiful melting pot of sounds and influences from all over the world and nobody better exemplifies this than Bahrain-raised London based trumpeter Yazz Ahmed. We caught up with her to talk about her headline Jazz Cafe show, female representation and her creative process.

SS: Hey Yazz, thanks so much for agreeing to have a chat with us!

SSE: My pleasure!

SS: So the UK Jazz scene is going through a very exciting time at the moment and you’re right at the forefront of it along with some other incredibly exciting artists. Do you feel a sense of duty at all?

YA: I’m not sure to be honest, as I’ve always just done my own thing, trying to create music that is true to me, so it’s a real honour, and a pleasant surprise, to be included in this new movement. I don’t feel as if I’m doing anything remarkable, I’m just being myself.

I do, however, feel a duty to inspire young girls and women to express themselves. I also hope that I am changing perceptions some people may hold about those of Muslim heritage. I don’t shout about it but I hope that just the fact that I’m up there doing my thing can be a quiet catalyst for change.

I also think that the UK scene has always been vibrant and pushing boundaries, so it’s fantastic that we are now being listened to more widely around the globe.

SS: I think that's a great way to approach it, because by being a quiet catalyst you're normalising the situation which in many respects can be even more powerful. There are some people that say music trends reflects the sentiment of a country, what do you think the jazz movement says about the UK?

YA: The UK is one of the most diverse, cosmopolitan and artistic places to live in the world. Its population brings a huge wealth of cultural heritage from all around the globe and I think UK jazz reflects this.

SS: We’ve recently heard the argument that the word ‘Jazz’ is getting thrown around too loosely now that it’s seemingly more popular, what’s your stance on this?

YA: Jazz is a hybrid art form that morphs and finds inspiration from many styles, genres, philosophies and personal experiences. I don’t think the word ‘jazz’ is thrown around too loosely (except for when it’s used to advertise cars, trains or even apples!) – it’s the music of our lives and how we express our thoughts and feelings through improvisation.

SS: That's a really beautiful definition, however we are guilty of enjoying jazz apples from time to time. You’re set to release your new album later this year, in what ways will it differ from ‘La Saboteuse’ which received such widespread acclaim?

YA: I’m currently recording my suite, Polyhymnia, written for a thirteen-piece ensemble. The music is inspired by positive female role-models including Malala Yousafzai, the Suffragettes and Rosa Parks. There are still Arabic influences, particularly in my composition inspired by Saudi Arabia’s only female film director, Haaifa Al Mansour, but the music, reflects on the lives, struggles and courage these women possess and is much broader in scope than the music from La Saboteuse.

We’ll now be releasing Polyhymnia in January/Februray 2019 as we have a few surprises coming up this summer and autumn.

SS: Well we certainly can't wait to hear it. And that brings us nicely onto our next question, could you tell us a bit about your creative process when you’re writing music.

YA: I find inspiration from many sources, places I’ve visited, buildings and spaces, people and their achievements, musical discoveries, poetry and from science and nature. Once I’ve got that initial spark of desire to create something, the hard work begins.

For me, it is a slow and methodical process translating some thought or feeling into music. I might improvise on my trumpet or bash around on the piano, sketching out my ideas and hoping to find a few fragments with potential. A lot of these get discarded along the way but I often find that on returning to a previously abandoned work some new inspiration arises.

So it’s through a combination of imagination, experimentation and discipline that I arrive at the finished work. Except that I’m not sure that I ever really finish a piece completely, often reworking things for new combinations of musicians or for a particular occasion. Hearing my music brought to life can suggest new ideas and developments. Nothing is set in stone, it takes on a life of its own once it’s out in the world.

SS: That's really interesting because we recently listened to a fascinating podcast about the two types of musical genius. It explained that there are those that produce a finished item in a short space of time that is then left alone and there are those that constantly revisit their work and can always find room for development. So your creative process really supports his argument. You’re playing Love Supreme Festival this summer, does your approach to your performance differ at all when you’re playing festivals? And from a fan point of view, who are you excited to see?

YA: I treat each performance individually because every venue/festival/audience is different. I have to think carefully about which tunes to play, how much talking I do in between pieces and how is the audience reacting. One of the challenges of playing at festivals is that you often don’t get a proper sound check, because of the quick turn around between acts, which means you really need to have a great sense of trust between the musicians.

I’d love to try and catch the Dave Holland/Zakir Hussain/Chris Potter set while I’m there and George Clinton Parliament Funkadelic should be amazing.

SS: We're going green with jealousy just thinking about i! Staying on the topic of performing, you had your biggest headline show to-date earlier this year at Jazz Cafe, how do you prepare for your live shows and how did it go?

YA: Lots of practise, rehearsals with my band, silly little things like working out what I’m going to wear etc. I felt that the show at the Jazz Café was such a special gig. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I was amazed that we had managed to sell it out! I couldn’t help but think ‘who are these people?!’ I was really happy that we drew such a relatively young audience and such a lovely mixture of people.

SS: We’re gradually starting to see a better representation of women in the music industry but we’ve still got a long way to go, what more do you think can be done?

YA: Venues and festival could book more female-led bands. Create projects that commission female composers. Offer support, encouragement and opportunities to students and professionals. I think that we also need to lose the prefix ‘female’! When have you seen a gig advertised featuring an ‘all-male line-up’?! Sounds ridiculous, right?

SS: Yes, so ridiculous, we couldn't agree more. Now excuse us while we veer massively off topic for our final question. If aliens came to earth and asked you what music is, what song would you play them?

YA: I would play Paprika Plains by Joni Mitchel. It’s an incredible piece of narrative music with themes of hopelessness, childhood innocence, war and the displacement of indigenous populations. It has a long instrumental interlude in the middle, which Joni improvised at the piano, later asking Michael Gibbs to orchestrate her dreamlike meditation for a chamber orchestra. It’s a beautiful listen.

SS: Thanks again for chatting with us! It's been fascinating. All the best for the rest of the year!

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