Yazz Ahmed: ‘It was nice to think out of this world’

As she prepares to play the opening night of this year’s Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival, Yazz Ahmed talks to Jim Gilchrist about writing music for the moon

Yazz Ahmed
Yazz Ahmed

Trumpeter and flugelhorn player Yazz Ahmed’s music is informed by more than just her Arabic heritage. The British-Bahrainian musician’s distinctive jazz-fusion encompasses influences as diverse as historically iconic women, the plight of refugees in peril on the Mediterranean, and astronomy.

On 15 July Ahmed plays the opening night of the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival, making her festival debut in quartet with vibraphonist Jonny Mansfield, bassist Dave Manington and drummer Martin France. The festival may have lost out on US trumpet ace Ambrose Akinmusire, originally billed for that concert, but it has netted a formidable replacement in Ahmed, whose vividly textured and inventive music saw her Polyhymnia voted Album of the Year at the 2020 Jazz FM Awards, when she also scooped UK Jazz Act of the Year.

Hide Ad

Ahmed’s often spare, considered choice of notes and phrases could be considered Milesian, but it combines her richly belling tone with the microtonal maqams of Arabic music and a simmering crucible of electronica, establishing her not just as a notable figure within UK jazz but also on the ever-Protean global jazz scene.

The 39-year-old’s music is often described as “psychedelic Arabic jazz” – a term she doesn’t mind: “I’m not sure if it’s an accurate description,” she laughs, “but I’m rolling with it. It is fusion, yes, and it can get kind of psychedelic – definitely live.”

In Edinburgh she’ll include material from her albums La Saboteuse and Polyhymnia (her tribute to inspiring women such as Rosa Parks and Malala Yousafzai) as well as her epic commemoration of drowned refugees, A Shoal of Souls.

Like other musicians, she’s delighted at a return to live performance, although she was hardly idle during lockdown, releasing singles and streaming home sessions. She also, of necessity, developed solo performance skills, deploying backing tracks and looping, but last year ended triumphantly with her return to the live stage in no uncertain manner, with the BBC Concert Orchestra during the London Jazz Festival.

Hide Ad

Current activities include a sound installation to complement Luke Geraim’s seven-foot diameter Museum of the Moon installation for the forthcoming Womad festival. It echoes previous heavenly commissions including Saturn, written for the Ligeti Quartet to mark the centenary of Gustav Holst’s Planets suite, and The Earth’s Reflection, for Moon Night 2018. “It was nice to kind of think out of this world,” she recalls, “especially for The Earth’s Reflection, which was a solo piece. I made a soundtrack with the pops and clicks of my trumpet, imagining the Moon being very lonely and mysterious.”

She’s back down to Earth, however, with her next album, production of which was delayed by lockdown, but which she hopes to release next year. Entitled Alhaan Al Siduri, it is an expansive re-imagining of a suite she premiered in 2015, inspired by Bahrain and its pearlfishers and with her regular Hafla band augmented by several vocalists, including Brigette Beraha, Alya Marquardt. and “sound sculptor” Jason Singh.

Hide Ad

At Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival, which runs from 15-24 July, she joins more than 130 events across the capital. Returning favourites include singer-saxophonist Curtis Stigers and Jools Holland, US electric guitarist John Scofield and Davina and the Vagabonds, while Chicago’s Mud Morganfield leads a copious blues bill.

Spark, a celebration of Italian jazz, features young exponents such as Federico Calcagno and Sade Mangiaracina, while Belgian guests include Les Violins de Bruxelles, joining Scotland’s Rose Room for a night of gypsy swing.

Soweto Kinch curates a showcase of up-and-coming UK musicians, while the Scottish Jazz EXPO strand presents a wealth of homegrown talent, including Martin Kershaw, Colin Steele, Fergus McCreadie, Emma Smith and Brian Kellock, with Edinburgh’s own trad champion, Ali Affleck, fronting New Orleans nights. And Saturday 16th sees the Grassmarket erupt with the Festival’s Mardi Gras – a welcome burst of exuberance after an absence of two years.

Yazz Ahmed plays Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh, on 15 July. For full Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival programme, see www.edinburghjazzfestival.com