by Ian Mann
October 22, 2019
Rich, powerful, colourful, exciting and highly evocative. Ahmed’s most ambitious and most successful work to date has the feel of a ‘major statement’ about it.
(Ropeadope Records RAD-506)
One of the main highlights of the 2019 Cheltenham Jazz Festival was the performance of the new work “Polyhymnia” by trumpeter and composer Yazz Ahmed, accompanied by a twelve piece ensemble representing an extended version of her regular Family Hafla septet.
The last few years have been exciting ones for Ahmed. Born to a British mother and a Bahrainian father she was brought up in England and developed a love of jazz through her British grandfather, the 1950s jazz trumpeter Terry Brown.
However she has also begun to explore her Bahraini roots, a process that first found musical expression in 2011 on her début release “Finding My Way Home”, which combined conventional jazz and bebop virtues with Middle Eastern elements.
The intervening years have seen Ahmed maturing musically and refining her approach, a process helped by the establishment of her regular working band, the Family Hafla, the name coming from an Arabic word meaning “friendly social gathering”.
Ahmed’s writing for her septet was documented on her second album “La Saboteuse”, released on Naim Records in 2017. This represented a major step forward and was widely acclaimed by critics and public alike, establishing Ahmed as a major new force on the UK jazz scene. Honed via regular live performance Ahmed’s compositions for “La Saboteuse” were her strongest to date, combining her jazz and Arabic influences with a judicious touch of electronica. This was exciting and exotic music created by an increasingly confident performer and composer.
In 2014 Ahmed was awarded a Jazz Fellowship from the Birmingham based Jazzlines association and as a result was commissioned to write her first large scale work. Based on the traditional songs of Bahraini pearl divers the nine part suite “Alhaan al Siduuri” was successfully premièred at the CBSO Centre in Birmingham in October 2015 by an extended version of the Family Hafla group. Review here;
As Ahmed’s profile has continued to rise she has been the beneficiary of a number of other commissions, among them the “Polyhymnia” project. The suite was commissioned in 2015 by the Tomorrow’s Warriors organisation with support from the PRS Women Make Music scheme. Inspired by six courageous and influential women “Polyhymnia” was premièred at the Purcell Room on the South Bank as part of the 2015 Women Of The World Festival and was performed by an all female ensemble.
The Cheltenham show that I was fortunate enough to witness represented the first performance of the work outside London. I was hugely impressed by the quality of the writing and the excellence of the playing and the whole event was a triumph for Ahmed and her band. My account of that live performance can be read here as part of my Festival coverage;
The success of that Cheltenham performance helped to ensure that the “Polyhymnia” album has been one of the most keenly anticipated releases of the year as far as I’m concerned. The album appears on the American Ropeadope record label, the home of numerous other innovative UK jazz acts.
Like its predecessor, “La Saboteuse”, it features the distinctive artwork of Sophie Bass, who Ahmed considers to be very much a key member of her team. The elaborate album packaging features a Bass artwork representing each of the six movements of the “Polyhymnia” suite.
“Polyhymnia” also features a large and fluctuating cast of musicians, many of them female.
The full line up comprises of;
Yazz Ahmed – trumpet, flugelhorn, Kaoss Pad, hand-claps
Noel Langley – trumpet, flugelhorn, Fender Rhodes
Becca Toft, Alex Ridout, Chloe Abbott – trumpets
Helena Kay, Camilla George – alto saxes
Tori Freestone – tenor sax, soprano sax, alto flute
Nubya Garcia – tenor sax
Gemma Moore, Josie Simmons – baritone saxes
George Crowley – bass clarinet
Carol Jarvis – trombone, bass trombone
Rosie Turton - trombone
Johanna Burnheart – electric violin
Samuel Hallkvist, Shirley Tetteh – guitars
Sarah Tandy, Alcyona Mick, Naadia Sheriff - keyboards
Ralph Wylde – vibraphone
Charlie Pyne – bass guitar, double bass
Corinna Silvester – percussion
Sophie Alloway – drums
Tom Jenkins – additional synth programming
Sheila Maurice Grey – voice
“Polyhymnia” is named for the Greek Muse of music, poetry and dance, a figure that Ahmed describes as “A Goddess for the arts”. It is a suite of six movements that Ahmed dedicates to “six women of outstanding qualities, role models with whom I felt a strong connection”.
Since its inaugural performance in 2015 the music has developed further with Ahmed adding new elements and expanding the pool of collaborators. It was recorded at various UK and European locations over a three year period from 2016 to 2019, with Ahmed and her colleagues fitting recording sessions in with their various other commitments. Co-produced by Ahmed and Langley the album also features contributions from engineers Tom Jenkins, Robin Morrison, August Wanngren, Katrine Ambler and Marco Pasquariello.
The album actually features a different running order to the Cheltenham live performance and the arrangements are significantly different. Here things commence with “Lahan Al-Mansour”, dedicated to Saudi Arabia’s first female film director Haifaa Al Mansour, director of the award winning film “Wadjda” (2012), which explores women’s issues in contemporary Saudi Arabia, winning plaudits in the West but attracting criticism and hatred at home. For Al-Mansour the sight of women secretly riding bicycles in Saudi Arabia represented a kind of freedom, something that Bass mirrors in her artwork.
Musically the piece begins with an ‘invocation to Polyhymnia’, an atmospheric improvisation featuring cameos from several members of the ensemble including Ahmed on flugel. Later the composition continues Ahmed’s experiments with Arabic music, the scales, the rhythms and the overall feel, to telling effect. Ancient collides with modern as Ahmed mutates the sound of her trumpet via her trusty and much loved Kaoss Pad. Others to shine include Freestone on soprano sax, George on alto and Tandy and Mick, both playing Fender Rhodes. The overall performance is rich, powerful, colourful, exciting and highly evocative.
“Ruby Bridges” is dedicated to the civil rights activist who was the first (and only) African-American pupil to attend a previously segregated school in Louisiana. Born in 1954 Bridges enrolled at the William Frantz Elementary School in 1960 as part of a scheme supported by the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People) that was intended to lead to the full integration of the New Orleans school system. The angry reaction of the white parents (and most of the teachers) and the often violent protests outside the school gates meant that Bridges and her mother walked to school each day flanked by four Federal Marshalls to give them protection. Bridges was taught separately to the rest of the pupils in a one to one situation by Barbara Henry, a teacher originally from Boston.
Bass’s image reflects the “macabre carnival” of the protests while Ahmed’s music also conveys something of a ‘New Orleans’ feel, the composer stating;
“I wanted to write a piece invoking the spirit of a New Orleans carnival with a simple melody, conveying the innocent, pure viewpoint of a child, contrasted with harmonic dissonance, carrying an undercurrent of menace. ‘Ruby Bridges’ is my homage to the power of innocence to conquer evil’.
Alloway and Silvester establish the marching rhythm around which Mick spins inventive piano melodies, the horns subsequently adding weight to the arrangement and the guitars a twang of dissonance. Fluent and inventive solos come from Ahmed on flugel, Freestone on tenor and Mick on piano. The tune then changes pace with a ‘second line’ section in which Alloway and Silvester feature prominently.
Another pioneer of female education is celebrated on “One Girl Among Many”, a tune honouring Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistan born campaigner for the education of girls in fundamentalist Islamic communities. The survivor of a Taliban assassination attempt and the youngest ever winner of the Nobel Peace Prize Yousafzai has become an inspirational figure, founding the Malala fund, speaking at the United Nations and embarking on a degree course at Oxford University.
Bass’ image for this composition graces the front cover of the album and depicts Malala as a shining light.
Ahmed’s music is based on Yousafzai’s speech to the United Nations on her sixteenth birthday in 2013. The composition includes instrumental melody lines directly reflecting cadences and phrases in Malala’s speech and the arrangement also features the massed, almost exclusively female, voices of the ensemble speaking key phrases and sentences from Yousafzai’s address, one of these representing the tune’s title. This display of solidarity is complemented by an evocative arrangement that ensures that the spoken proclamations never sound sanctimonious or forced. Ahmed is the featured soloist on flugel, and the piece is bookended by two passages of solo piano, the first performed by Mick, the other by Tandy.
“2857” pays homage to another US Civil Rights activist. 2857 was the number of the vehicle in Montgomery, Alabama where Rosa Parks made her now famous ‘bus protest’ in November 1955, refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger. It was an action inspired by the brutal murder just a few days earlier of Emmett Till, another well documented incident in the history of the Civil Rights movement. Parks’ arrest led to the boycott of Montgomery buses by the city’s black community. Parks later continued as a committed Civil Right activist and worked alongside Martin Luther King.
Ahmed’s piece draws inspiration from the number of the bus on which Parks made her protest, the numerals informing both the meter and the melody of the composition as Ahmed explains; “It’s a piece of two halves, the first expressing the quiet dignity of her action, the second the storm of change to come”. The first section exudes that ‘quiet dignity’ via the warm colours of the arrangement and a gentle, but implacable groove. Freestone’s tenor sax cadenza forms the bridge into the angrier second section, this including what Ahmed describes as a “collective wild interlude”, a loosely structured squall featuring several members of the ensemble. Elsewhere powerful and insistent grooves predominate with Turton’s trombone prominent in the arrangement and with Ahmed producing some of her most belligerent trumpet soloing, her sound wilfully distorted by means of her Kaoss Pad.
“Deeds Not Words” honours freedom fighters nearer to home, the women of the Suffragette movement of the early 20th century. Ahmed’s composition takes its title from the movement’s motto, which found expression in increasingly radical acts of civil disobedience in the years leading up to World War 1. The actions of the Suffragettes allied to the effects of the war eventually led to the passing of the Representation of the People Act of 1918, which gave some women the vote, paving the way for universal suffrage some years later. Bass’ image depicts the Suffragette movement as a great wave, or tsunami.
Ahmed’s tune is based on a re-working of the Suffragette protest song “Shoulder to Shoulder”, which in turn was based on the Welsh battle hymn “The March of the Men of Harlech”. To this Ahmed has added jazz harmonies and Arabic scales to create something new and personal to her, an action she sees as being equivalent to the Suffragettes’ original adaptation of an existing song for their own purposes.
The performance commences with an evocative drum and percussion duet featuring Alloway and Silvester, signifying the growing rumble of discontent leading to the formation of the Suffragette movement. This evolves into a four way conversation between Ahmed on trumpet & Kaoss Pad, Simmons on baritone sax, Hallkvist on guitar and Wylde at the vibes. As the piece gathers momentum Pyne’s bass lines allude to “Men of Harlech” but it’s only later that the familiar melody finally, and triumphantly, breaks cover.
The closing piece, “Barbara”, pays tribute to one of Ahmed’s musical heroines, the saxophonist and composer Barbara Thompson and her fifty plus years career as a jazz musician. Ahmed came to Thompson’s music fairly late thanks to the 2012 documentary “Playing Against Time”, which charted Thompson’s struggles to continue working as a professional musician while suffering from the effects of Parkinson’s Disease. Thompson finally retired from live performance in 2015 but continues to compose, viewing the process as part of the management and treatment of her illness.
On a personal note I go back with Thompson’s music much further, to the late 70s and 80s and her bands Jubiaba and Paraphernalia, seeing the latter in live performance many times. Paraphernalia also featured the talents of Thompson’s husband, Jon Hiseman, drummer, producer and all round facilitator, who sadly died in 2018. Ahmed compares her own creative partnership with Langley with that of Thompson and Hiseman.
Musically Ahmed’s piece reflects an interest in minimalism and combines joyous melodies with polyrhytmic motifs, divided across all the instruments of the ensemble. Crowley’s bass clarinet is particularly prominent in the arrangement while further solos come from Ahmed on flugel, Tetteh on multi-tracked guitar and Kay on alto sax. The mood of the piece is warm, reflective and richly evocative, eventually leading to a rousing and triumphant climax in C major that Ahmed declares to be “a celebration of human courage and an ode to Polyhymnia”.
As one of the most eagerly awaited releases of the year “Polyhymnia” doesn’t disappoint. Ahmed’s compositions tackle weighty themes without becoming ‘preachy’ or pretentious, the listener never feels as if they’re being beaten about the head, despite the seriousness of the underlying messages. Instead Ahmed does her talking through the music, although it’s undeniably illuminating to read about the inspirations behind the tunes and to enjoy Bass’ visual responses to them.
But at the end of the day it’s all about the music, which is multi-faceted and multi-hued, rich in terms of mood, colour and texture and superbly played by a well integrated ensemble, with Ahmed’s own playing at the heart of the arrangements. The skill and craft of the writing and playing is matched by the production, making for a superb package all round.
Having enjoyed the Cheltenham performance so much I just knew that I wouldn’t be disappointed by this album. “Polyhymnia” represents Ahmed’s most ambitious and successful work to date and has the feel of a ‘major statement’ about it, but a statement that bears its weightiness lightly.
Ahmed is currently touring the “Polyhymnia” project in Europe and the UK. For details of forthcoming dates please visit http://www.yazzahmed.com
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