Yazz Ahmed teams up with NYOS Jazz Orchestra to play ‘psychedelic Arabic jazz’

Youthful jazz big band meets psychedelic Arabic jazz on the Isle of Skye and hits the road … It sounds like a potently bubbling creative crucible that is due to be ignited later this month, when the acclaimed British-Bahraini trumpeter and flugelhorn player Yazz Ahmed teams up with the Scottish National Youth Orchestras of Scotland (NYOS) Jazz Orchestra for a five-venue tour.

Yazz Ahmed
Yazz Ahmed

The tour kicks off on 18 July at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, the perpetually buzzing Gaelic college and cultural centre on Skye, as part of Fèis an Eilein, and progresses through Birnam Arts Centre, Glasgow Concert Hall’s New Auditorium and the MAC in Belfast, to finish at Ireland’s Sligo Jazz Festival on the 24th.

This year is the 40th anniversary of NYOS, and its Jazz Orchestra is well used to genre-stretching material – last year it toured with beatboxer and sound artist Jason Singh. This time around, it will play arrangements by its conductor, Malcolm Edmonstone, of Yazz Ahmed’s distinctive blend of contemporary jazz with her Bahraini musical heritage, sometimes simplistically labelled “psychedelic Arabic jazz”.

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The 36-year-old Ahmed’s current album, the critically acclaimed La Saboteuse, features richly textured music, her full-toned trumpet and flugelhorn sounding amid judicious electronic effects in creative company including Shabaka Hutchings on bass clarinet and Naadia Sheriff on Fender Rhodes keyboard.

She has a spin-off single from the album, La Saboteuse: A Shoal of Souls, just out, inspired by artist Sophie Bass’s artwork for the original album sleeve and dedicated to all the refugees who have lost their lives crossing the Mediterranean in the hope of a better life.

With the NYOS band, Ahmed, whose father is Bahraini, will perform material inspired by Bahrain, where she spent the first years of her life before moving to London. “Malcom is arranging pieces I wrote inspired by Bahraini pearl divers,” she tells me. “There’s a tradition in there of pearl diving and a lot of songs that keep them going.”

They’ll also be performing Edmonstone’s arrangements of music Ahmed has written inspired by female musicians, including the British pianist Nikki Iles. The trumpeter frequently champions women musicians: her suite Polyhymnia was premiered on International Women’s Day in 2015 and is due to be released as an album on Ropeadope Records in October.

“Polyhymnia brings to light amazing stories of inspiring women,” she explains.

“There’s one piece dedicated to a musician, saxophonist Barbara Thompson, but the rest are activists such as Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges – the first African-American child to de-segregate in an all whites school in Louisiana, another inspired by Malala Yousafzai and her 2013 speech to the UN.”

Ahmed agrees there is a still a requirement to bring women out from behind the microphone, their traditional role in jazz: “There is a real need to inspire younger generations and make it feel normal that women can play instruments.”

This invisibility is even more pronounced in her father’s country: “It is very unusual for a woman of Bahraini heritage to become a front-line instrumentalist or even a singer. It’s not frowned upon, but perhaps it has been confusing for my family members to understand as it’s not considered a profession.

“Most of my Bahraini family are engineers so becoming a musician is completely alien to them. However, seeing my success, they have accepted my career choice.”

Music, however, was always around when she was growing up, everything from The Rite of Spring to reggae. Her mother was a ballet dancer and played classical and contemporary music – “she was also a big reggae fan”.

Ahmed absorbed Bahraini music as a child, but her jazz – and trumpet – lineage came from her maternal grandfather, Terry Brown, who in the Fifties performed with John Dankworth, Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes.

She’s looking forward to working with the NYOS band – whose alumni include an impressive clutch of such award-winning musicians as saxophonist Helena Kay, singer Luca Manning and pianists Fergus McCreadie and Pete Johnston – and recalls with fondness her time in south London’s Merton Youth Jazz Orchestra.

“We used to play every year to the crowds at Wimbledon. We would sneak into centre court and watch the big matches.”

At least one reviewer has suggested that La Saboteuse is the kind of music Miles Davis might have produced had he been making Bitches Brew now.

Davis has indeed been a big influence on Ahmed – “especially the later jazz-rock stuff, and he used bass clarinet in his band and I really like that sound, along with the Fender Rhodes. So that has been influential, and inspiring, but I try not to copy him.”

Her blend of big belling horn tone with the sinuous maqam modes of Arabic music and sci-fi effects is very much her own, however, and will give the formidable young players of NYOS plenty to work on as they take the road from Skye to Sligo. It should be quite a trip

For further details, see www.nyos.co.uk and www.yazzahmed.com