An interview with Yazz Ahmed

Photo of Yazz Ahmed

Two years ago, we set out on a journey to capture the spirit of London and pay homage to the materials, forms, and techniques which informed centuries of innovation in on of the world's greatest cities.

In doing so, we quickly realised that it isn’t enough to simply reflect the past. That legends are only born when you take what has come before you, living it, breathing it, before re-engineering it to express something new about the world as you know it.

And so we’ve developed four timeless frames which hark back to the simple elegance and handcrafted artisanship of the past while embodying the rich, innovative spirit of London today. Fittingly, we call them Legends.  

Learn more about Yazz Ahmed, the inspiration behind the Yazz frame

Tell us about yourself, your background, what you’re up to:

I am a jazz trumpet player, composer, bandleader and recording artist.

I was born in Carshalton, England, in 1983. Three months later I moved to Bahrain with my parents. My father is Bahraini and my mother is English.

I’ve been working as a professional musician for the last 12 years, and have to lead my ensembles in performances of my own music all around the world. Recently this has taken me as far afield as New York, Chicago, Paris, Istanbul, Algeria, Toronto and Bahrain. I’ve performed at major festivals such as WOMAD, Molde Jazz, Pori Jazz and Love Supreme, as well as working with Radiohead, Lee Scratch Perry, Joan as Police Woman, Tarek Yamani, and These New Puritans. 

My 2017 album, La Saboteuse, picked up a lot of great reviews internationally and has been described as ‘Psychedelic Arabic Jazz’ - a genre which I seem to have invented. I’ve followed this up with an EP of remixes from La Saboteuse, in collaboration with some of the hippest DJ/producers in Europe: Hector Plimmer; DJ Khalab; and Blacksea Não Maya.

I am currently working on my next album, Polyhymnia, music inspired by courageous and influential women, with a release planned for May 2019.

What are some of the forces which have influenced your approach to making music, or your work in general?

Well, it’s taken me quite a while to find my true voice, although it is always evolving, but really started when I began revisiting my Bahraini roots.

I moved to England when I was nine years old and that’s when my musical education began.

My maternal grandfather, Terry Brown, was a successful jazz trumpeter in the 1950s. He played with John Dankworth, Tubby Hayes, and Ronnie Scott, amongst many others. I looked up to Terry, he was my hero, and so the trumpet was the instrument I was drawn to.

I went on to study for a music degree and then a Masters in Jazz at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama but, it wasn’t until after I left that I came across a record which really switched on a light for me.

I’ve always studied very hard and I like to absorb myself in whatever I’m fixated upon but in all the work I did learning the trumpet, studying many styles of jazz and classical music, I had forgotten the traditional Arabic music of my early years in Bahrain.

This changed when I discovered an album by oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil, which I only picked up because it featured my favourite trumpet player, Kenny Wheeler. Listening to Blue Camel suddenly brought back recollections of seeing people drumming and singing, at parties or in the street, as part of daily life.

Rabih’s music inspired me to experiment fusing jazz with Arabic music, a combination I find works so beautifully and feels very personal to me.

Reconnecting with the music of my childhood home has been a major inspiration to me, both in my life and in the way I write music.

Who have been influential people in your musical career and how have they influenced the way you approach writing, composing and performing?

I am very grateful to Tomorrow’s Warriors, an absolutely brilliant educational organisation based at the Southbank Centre, which champions young musicians from diverse backgrounds, with a great emphasis on nurturing young female talent. They not only gave me some of my first commissions as a composer but also arranged mentoring for me with John Warren and Scott Stroman. I was also lucky to spend some time with John Surman as part of my inclusion in the Take Five artist development program run by Serious. More recently, the LSO Soundhub scheme partnered me with the amazing classical composer Graham Fitkin.

Despite all of this wonderful support, I still feel something of a self-taught latecomer to the world of composition and I feel each time I write a new piece of music I’m learning as I go.

I have been inspired by the people I have worked with, including the vocal sculptor, Jason Singh, who has lead me to explore the use of electronic effects and live sampling in performance and as a compositional tool. Likewise, my time on the road with These New Puritans and in the studio with Radiohead sparked my interest in such things as manipulating field recordings and using multi-layered recording techniques. Bringing these disciplines to the world of jazz and improvisation reveals new possibilities and takes the music in unexpected directions.

I also find inspiration listening to many people, including trumpet players Jon Hassell, Kenny Wheeler, and Avre Henriken. Lately, I’ve been listening to contemporary classical string quartet music, looking for inspiration for a recent commission and I’ve also been exploring the electronic works of Aphex Twin as well as delving into the world of Tunisian Art Rock singer, Emel Mathlouthi.

What do you feel you’ve gained by studying the tradition, the history and the greats of the art form? What does that bring to your work that wouldn’t be there otherwise?

I’ve been passionate about learning about the traditions of jazz going back 100 years. My grandfather used to play me his old records from the 1940s and 1950s. I was drawn to Dizzy Gillespie and Tubby Hayes and then went on to become obsessed with Blue Note artists like Freddie Hubbard and Joe Henderson. My formal study of Arabic music is really just beginning and I expect that to continue for the rest of my life.

Developing an understanding of the historical and theoretical sides of both genres can actually lead to the freedom to break the rules associated with these styles.

Without the well of knowledge, I’ve been steadily acquiring I think I would struggle to express my inner thoughts and feelings through music in a way that is true to me.

When you’re writing, recording or performing, how does the study of the past come to life in what you do?

When I’m performing, recording or composing I need to be totally present, in the moment, the here and now, reacting to what I’m hearing, feeling and experiencing from the environment.

In order to do this successfully one actually needs to forget everything, one has learned because being in the flow is primarily an instinctive activity, not an intellectual one. Thoughts are the enemy of creation, for me at least, because they are often self-critical.

How do you reconcile your relationship with music’s history with the desire to create something which speaks to your own time, place or culture? Are tradition and innovation mutually exclusive?

I actually have no interest in recreating music from the past. I have a respect for the traditions and I’m very aware of my own limitations when measured against the giants of history, and the present day, but my whole motivation is to create music that reflects my experience of the world today.

Describe your relationship with London. What’s great about it, what’s challenging about it? How do you balance these?

It was my home from the age of 9 to 27.

I love the diversity, it’s a global village with people from all over the world, and maybe beyond…!

Art galleries, music, food, the crazy pace of the city, the tranquility of a quiet garden square, late-night bagels, bumping into an old friend on the tube, walking across Waterloo bridge at any time of the day or night.

I do hate the rush hour tubes and pollution. It’s very noticeable since I’ve moved out to the countryside.

The fresh air and peace of village life is a good balance for me with the days traveling to London.

What makes London a great place to be creative?

I actually feel you can be creative anywhere, you don’t have to live at the hub of a bustling city. 

However, if you want to collaborate, it is a goldmine of creative talent. It’s where everybody from all around the world comes together. There is a real creative buzz and everybody has the opportunity to feed off each other’s energy. If you need inspiration, there are thousands of gigs, exhibitions, lectures, sights, sounds and smells around every corner.

Why do you do what you do? What makes it special to you or the people around you?

Can’t imagine doing anything else. I love music and experimenting, learning new things, finding new ways to express my emotions and tell my stories through music. I don’t think what I do is special but it seems that a few people find something in my work that speaks to them and that makes me feel I should carry on.

Tell us about anything you’re working on now or anything you have coming up.

Well, I’ve had an absolutely manic touring schedule in 2018 with a huge number of gigs in Europe and a couple of trips across the Atlantic. I’m off to Germany, France, and Italy in November but I do have a couple of UK dates in before Christmas. I’m playing with my quartet at the Northern Quarter in Huddersfield on Dec 14th and before that, I’m playing with my seven-piece Hafla band at the CBSO Centre in Birmingham on Dec 1st.

When I am back at home I will be continuing to work on the final stages of recording my next album, Polyhymnia and starting a new commission to write a piece about the moon for the Open University’s Moon Night event on Dec 7th.


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