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Jazz trumpeter and composer Yazz Ahmed talks to Trailblazers about finding her unique musical style and the power of music to bring cultures together
By Anna Grace on 12 Sep 2019
Welcome to the latest edition of Trailblazers – IQ’s regular series of Q&As with the inspirational figures forging their own paths in the global live entertainment business.
From people working in challenging conditions or markets to those simply bringing a fresh perspective to the music world, Trailblazers aims to spotlight unique individuals from all walks of life who are making a mark in one of the world’s most competitive industries. IQ’s last Trailblazer interview featured Chris Jammer and Louise Young of independent UK festival Strawberries and Creem, which can be read here.
This time, IQ welcomes its first-ever artist of the Trailblazer series, in the form of British-Bahraini trumpet player and composer Yazz Ahmed.
Seeking to blur the boundaries between jazz and electronic music, Ahmed brings together the sounds of her mixed heritage in what has been described as ‘psychedelic Arabic jazz’ and lauded as ‘intoxicating and compelling’.
Ahmed’s forthcoming album Polyhymnia is the result of a project commissioned by jazz music education and artist development organisation Tomorrow’s Warriors, in conjunction with PRS Women Make Music. The suite is inspired by courageous and influential women from across the globe, including songs dedicated to Saudi Arabia’s first female film director Haifaa Al-Mansour, civil rights activist Ruby Bridges and the suffragettes.
IQ talks to Ahmed about upcoming concert dates, the instability faced by freelance musicians and the need for more female-led bands and composers.
How did you get your start in the industry?
The first big ‘gig’ for me was miming on a Manic Street Preachers music video when I was just 18. I was very excited and even though it was a miming gig, it gave me the courage to decide to become a professional musician even though I wasn’t sure what that would mean. I just had a love for music and knew I wanted to take it further.
What this meant was ten years of really hard work, studying all aspects of music, learning to play my instrument, exploring jazz and completing a Bachelor of Arts degree and a Masters in the process.
I said ‘yes’ to every gig I was offered, no matter what it was, to gain experience and also supplemented my income by teaching for Haringey and Merton music services in North London, and working as a music librarian in the offices of promotion and production company Raymond Gubbay.
I began composing whilst I was studying at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Some of those early compositions formed the basis of my first album, Finding My Way Home, released in 2011, and that became the start of my solo career.
“I was desperate to find a female role model in jazz and felt quite down not having anyone to look up to”
Can you tell me about your current projects?
Well, I’m really happy to be back on the road with my quartet after a break over the summer. We’ve got dates in France, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands coming up in the next couple of months.
The rest of the year revolves around putting together a tour to perform all the music from my new record, Polyhymnia, with a twelve-piece ensemble. I’ve assembled an amazing group of musicians, augmenting my regular Hafla band with players featured on the album and some very talented guests.
We have confirmed dates this November in York, Hull, Oxford and Cambridge, with some more to be announced soon for 2020.
I also have a couple of shows coming up with my side project, Electric Dreams, featuring the incredible vocal sculptor, Jason Singh, Swedish nu-prog guitar hero, Samuel Hällkvist and the world renowned American jazz drummer, Rod Youngs. We’ll be playing at the Jazz Cafe in London on 3 October and at Gosforth Theatre in Newcastle on 4 October. We’re sort of a secret, experimental band, exploring the margins between jazz and electronica. We only get together once or twice a year and the entire set is always completely improvised, so each gig will be a unique event!
“We’re sort of a secret, experimental band, exploring the margins between jazz and electronica”
Who, or what, have been the biggest influences on your career so far?
There are so many people that have inspired and encouraged me over the years that it’s difficult to single anybody out. However, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t come into contact with the pioneering oud player, Rabih Abou-Khalil, and trumpeters, Ingrid Jensen and Kenny Wheeler.
I discovered Ingrid in my early 20s. I was desperate to find a female role model in jazz and felt quite down not having anyone to look up to. I then found Ingrid who made me realise that it is possible for female trumpeters to have a career in jazz. Maybe it sounds a little silly but she made a huge psychological impact on my life, inspiring me to keep going, when I couldn’t see a way forward.
I have always loved Kenny Wheeler’s writing and playing. His sound is so unique, beautiful and with a sense of fragility that brings tears to my eyes. I remember watching his 80th birthday concert at the Royal Academy of Music and being in floods of tears throughout the whole performance! I couldn’t help it – it was so moving!
It was during my slightly obsessive search for any music that Kenny might be playing on that I came across the music of Rabih Abou-Khalil. Kenny featured on his album, Blue Camel, which combined Arabic music with jazz. Hearing this album was a life changing moment for me. It inspired me to create music that was reflective of my own mixed heritage, exploring the half remembered sounds of my childhood, and thus finding my own voice.
“It’s a much quoted truth but artists are usually their own worst critics and can be quite savage at times”
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
I find that there are many rewards in music whether it’s bringing people and cultures together, making listeners feel something, or just contributing to the world’s spiritual growth.
It’s so wonderful hearing from audience members expressing what our performance meant to them. My biggest wish is to inspire others to be creative, to make just a small positive difference in the world.
And the most challenging?
It sounds a bit mundane but, as freelancers, we have no financial security beyond our next gig, no pension plan, no sick pay and this can make it difficult to plan for the future.
We spend a large amount of time on our own, whether that’s practising, composing, researching, or finding inspiration. This isolation can be tough at times and in many cases can lead to feelings of self-doubt and depression.
There’s also a lot of pressure on us to always produce excellence. Most of which comes from within ourselves. It’s a much quoted truth but artists are usually their own worst critics and can be quite savage at times.
It’s a stressful and all-consuming job, but at the same time it’s something I can’t imagine trading in for anything else. I’ll just keep going as long as there is still somebody who wants to listen to my music. Actually, I’ll probably just carry on even if I’m only entertaining my cat.
“I think that we need to lose the prefix ‘female’! When have you seen a gig advertised featuring an ‘all-male line-up’?”
What achievements would you say you were most proud of?
Well, my second album La Saboteuse has just been selected for the UNESCO Crossings Institute’s list of the most significant recordings of the 2010s. That’s pretty amazing for a record, much of which was recorded in my garage with two microphones.
What, if anything, do you think the music industry could do better?
Venues and festival could book more female-led bands. The industry could create projects that commission female composers, and 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?
What advice would you give to someone hoping to make it in live music/entertainment?
Work hard and study your craft – be the best ‘you’ you can be.
Be open minded to all music and be willing to learn from everybody.
Stay humble, be kind, carry a pencil with you and always arrive on time!