Trumpeter Yazz Ahmed is half-Bahraini and half-English, her dad being from Bahrain where Ahmed lived until she was 9 years old. “When I moved to London, I felt that I left that part of my heritage behind and adapted to British life, British culture.” But it was in England that her interest in the trumpet began. “My maternal grandfather was a jazz trumpet player in the 1950s, called Terry Brown. He was also a record producer for Pye and Philips Records. When we moved to England, the school that I went to was offering instrument lessons and when they asked me what I’d like to play I instantly said trumpet because my grandad played and it seemed like a lot of fun. That’s how it started and my first lesson was with Terry. It was such an amazing experience, making sounds out of this shiny piece of metal. I fell in love with the instrument straight away.”
To begin with, Ahmed was classically trained with her love of jazz developing later. “I didn’t really seriously study jazz until I was 17. I had lessons with Nick Smart and when I developed enough I got into music college, and then at Guildhall I did the Masters jazz course. That’s where my jazz development started and expanded at the Guildhall, to include Arabic music and discovering interesting people like Jon Hassell, RJ Hendrickson who are both trumpet players that I find very influential.”
As Ahmed developed and grew as a person, she felt as if something was missing. “I eventually resolved this missing something when I discovered an album called Blue Camel by Rabih Abou-Khalil. I only picked it up because it featured my favourite trumpet player, Kenny Wheeler. I was incredibly inspired by it because it was Middle Eastern music fused with jazz elements, such as improvisation and communication between instruments. That really inspired me and that’s how my journey began. I started looking into the music of Bahrain and the musical tradition of pearl diving, songs that help them work, and then there are songs of loneliness because they’re out at sea for weeks, missing their loved ones. Since discovering, or re-discovering, this music I feel much more whole as a person.”
In order to play Middle Eastern music more effectively, Ahmed had a quarter-tone flugelhorn specially developed for her by Leigh McKinney, her trumpet maker at Eclipse Trumpets. “I was commissioned by LSO and their Soundhub scheme and I wrote for this instrument specifically. It’s an instrument that can play quarter-tones; these are the blue notes that are in Arabic music, the notes that sound very heartfelt. They really get inside your soul. I won’t be playing that instrument at Love Supreme but I have written another piece of music that features this new instrument and it will be premiered on 11th July with NYJO.”
After touring the music from her last album, La Saboteuse, Ahmed is now focussing on the new remix EP. “It’s a four-track EP with remixes of three of the tracks from La Saboteuse. One is by Hector Plimmer and one is by DJ Khalab, and one is by Blacksea Não Maya. And there’s another track that is kind of a remix of music from the third chapter of La Saboteuse and it’s composed by myself, Jason Singh who does the programming on the track, Noel Langley, Samuel Hällkvist, who is the guitarist, and Lewis Wright. We all collaborated on that one track. The first track is going to be released at the end of July and it will be rolled out one track at a time, then the full release will be on limited edition vinyl in August. Then for my next album, we’re planning to release it around January/February time next year.”
Ahmed is looking forward to playing at Love Supreme Festival with her Hafla Band, which will be with Ralph Wyld on vibraphone, Naadia Sherriff on keyboards and piano, Dudley Phillips on bass, Samuel Hällkvist on electric guitar, Corrina Silvester on percussion and Martin France on drums. In terms of the music they’ll be performing, “We’re going to be playing a mixture of music from my album La Saboteuse and some of the music that will be on my next album, which is inspired by positive female role models. We’ll also be playing a little bit of music from my solo fellowship suite which is music inspired by Bahraini pearl divers and the work songs the women would sing, fused with jazz elements, improvisation and electronica.”
Outside of music, Ahmed enjoys doing yoga once a week. “It’s nice to get away from music because it’s a full-time job and you can’t get away from it really, with emails that come in about gigs and then practicing, gigging. So it’s hard to relax and get away from all that. I go to this yoga class where there are no musicians and instead people that I wouldn’t normally meet, like a postwoman, a nurse, housewives, a policeman, and funnily enough, an ex-convict who used to come. There’s a nice mixture of people and it’s a great way to relax.”
Yazz Ahmed appears at Love Supreme Festival on Sunday 1st July, 2018 on the Big Top stage at 14:30.
Her album La Saboteuse is out now on the Naim label, with artwork by Sophie Bass.
Interview conducted by Charlie Anderson for Sussex Jazz Magazine. Photo by Emile Holba.