Fluent in Jazz and Arabic scales, trumpeter and composer Yazz Ahmed’s music is a statement. The influence of Arabic music is prominent in the British-Bahraini artist’s work, yet it transcends borders, merging the sounds of pearl divers, fishing boats and sailors with electronic music, mastering textures, reconciling with her roots while questioning traditions. She recorded and performed with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry and Radiohead to name a few. The flugelhorn player with her culture-straddling space jazz forged a refined, disciplined, and meticulously crafted album in 2017 “La Saboteuse”, an album that took a top spot on every single ‘top jazz albums of the year’ chart around the globe. We had the chance to interview Yazz, and dive deeper into her world of harmony, technique, complexity, and sheer creativity.
Can we go back to our roots and “find our way home” without encountering sabotage and destruction along the way?
That’s a good question. For those not in the know, Finding My Way Home is the title of my 2011 debut album, on which I began exploring the idea of fusing jazz with the Arabic music of my Bahraini heritage. This journey towards reaffirming my cultural identity continued on my 2017 release, La Saboteuse.
La Saboteuse, the French feminine form of saboteur, is the name I have given to my inner demon, that entity with the self-destructive, malevolent voice, the one who wants to undermine me, who belittles my achievements and keeps me in my place. She actually doesn’t want me to create any music at all, but rather to keep quiet and un-noticed, and uses all her powers to sabotage my creative inclinations.
Recognising her voice when it arises and accepting that, although she is a part of me, I don’t have to listen to what she is saying, has helped me to diffuse her power to destroy. In fact, she has become an important part of my creative process, in as much as I have to fight her in order to find the courage to express myself.
It is often said of artists that they are their own worst critics and I certainly believe this to be true. I think the voice of La Saboteuse will be very familiar to many from outside the artistic community too. I hope that by highlighting my own insecurities and talking about them I can help other people to overcome their own demons.
I do think that if you haven’t connected with the experiences that make you who you are, it’s difficult to say something meaningful in your art. So, perhaps moving outside of your comfort zone and experiencing your vulnerabilities is an essential step towards finding your true voice.
Did you rediscover your Bahraini heritage through music, or did your heritage influence your music instead?
It’s hard to say really, both things happened more or less simultaneously.
I think the catalyst that set me on this path was the chance discovery of an album, Blue Camel, by oud player Rabih Abou-Khalil, which featured my favourite jazz trumpet player, the greatly missed Kenny Wheeler. When I listened to this album for the first time, a light switched on in my head. Here were the sounds and flavours of the forgotten music I had absorbed as a child in Bahrain, but fused with the jazz harmonies and improvisation I had fallen in love with since taking up the trumpet aged nine.
The music spoke to me on a deep subconscious level and I realised that I wanted to learn more about the traditions and disciplines of Arabic music.
I began studying from books like The Music of the Arabs, by Habib Hassan Touma, and began experimenting, composing themes and improvising using the scales I had found. Later I went on to take lessons with Egyptian violin master Emile Bassili, dipping my toe into the complex and evocative world of maqams and how to play expressively using quarter tones – the ‘blue’ notes in Arabic music. I even had a special instrument made, a flugelhorn with an extra valve, to help me play these emotive sounds more accurately.
This growing sense of identity led me to taking formal lessons in reading, writing and speaking gulf Arabic, the dialect spoken in Bahrain and the Gulf States. I had attended an international school in Bahrain, where all the lessons were in English, so Arabic is not my first language.
It is still an ongoing journey but perhaps the most exciting event so far was a commission to compose a suite, based on the secular folk music of Bahrain. The work songs of the pearl divers and the wedding music of the female drumming groups are a unique element of Bahraini culture. In researching my work, I attended a private concert of the pearl divers at which I made field recordings for inspiration. Later I manipulated and processed these, creating loops and soundscapes that became an integral part of my new composition. I was also able to write lyrics in Arabic for this project, which felt like a real achievement.
What was the difference between when you played “Bloom” for Radiohead and when you played it on your album?
It was whilst recording Bloom with Radiohead, for the Live From the Basement session, that I realised I could I hear this being performed by my band. When recording The King Of Limbs, I remember Jonny Greenwood saying that they had been inspired by the jazz harpist Alice Coltrane, so the jazz influence was already there from the start.
I was attracted by the multi-layered complexity of the song with its three interlocking drum parts, the cascading electronic loops and the achingly beautiful melodic lines soaring above. I could hear how I wanted to arrange it for my band and the particular musicians I play with. Although there is little space for improvisation in the original, I wanted to make my version a vehicle for more extended improvisation and expression. In my own compositions I’m always seeking to strike a balance between the thematic material, the orchestration and the space for improvisation. I really like the version we captured on my album but of course, when we perform live, it’s always different and we never know quite where the music will take us.
La Saboteuse took almost 2 years before it was released, what role did that play? Tell us about the creative process that lead to the acclaimed final product we got today.
During this period I became very busy with composing. I had three major projects to complete, which took a lot of my time and energy. During the process of composing the new pieces, I began to exploit the techniques I had experienced when working and touring with These New Puritans. Learning about manipulating pre-recorded sounds and using electronic processing. This inspired me and began feeding into my vision for La Saboteuse, driving me to expand on the material captured in the initial recording sessions.
Perhaps the best example is to be heard on The Space Between the Fish and the Moon, which was composed in an interesting way.
I had written the piece in 2012 and we recorded it exactly as it appeared on paper. However, when it came to listening back, after a few months’ breathing time, I felt that it didn’t quite fit in with the overall theme of the album. I was feeling a bit disheartened, however my producer, Noel Langley, had a brilliant idea! We went back to the original sound files and started chopping up the recorded material to create an entirely new piece. This could be likened to an artist creating a new work by using a collage of existing images. I then re-wrote the melody to fit this backdrop and I shadowed part of Lewis’s original improvised solo, to form a new theme, which I recorded in my home studio.
I also improvised extra flugelhorn lines with layers of Kaoss Pad effects, creating new and haunting soundscapes.
You’ve mastered textures and not only melodies. We can hear the cross-pollination between oriental influences, jazz and electronic in your music. Is there a recipe to achieving that kind of sound or does it come naturally?
I don’t think there’s a recipe and I would say I’m still learning about all aspects of music making. I think if an artist tries to construct a cool new blend of elements, or to imitate the style of somebody else, it doesn’t sound authentic. I would encourage people to make music reflecting their own experience and I hope that is something I have achieved. The music you hear on my album arrived in an organic way, it was not planned and it is very personal to me. It feels as if it gradually revealed its nature during the long creative process, it was given time to take shape and I’m so happy and surprised that it seems to resonate with so many people.
The artwork of La Saboteuse is truly beautiful, how did you choose it? And do you think artwork can influence the listener’s experience?
Charlie Curran, the genius A & R executive who signed me to Naim Records, was the artistic director for the album and he discovered the amazing art of Sophie Bass, approaching her to create four cover pieces, one for each chapter of the album.
Sophie is an incredible talent and I’m so glad that we made such a connection. She really resonated with the music and the themes of La Saboteuse and created absolutely stunning pieces, which I think really enhance the impact of the album as a whole. Each illustration seems to add a layer to the narrative of the music and this visual element perhaps helps to draw the listener deeper.
In fact in reaction to Sophie’s work , I have been inspired to compose a new piece, The Shoal of Souls, which I’m very happy to say I have just recorded with my band. I can’t give too much away at the moment but plans are afoot to release a fifth EP, a coda or final chapter to La Saboteuse, which will feature this new composition, alongside some remixes. We’ve got some amazing collaborators working on the tracks at the moment and I’m so excited about revealing more over the next few months.
There’s a line up of amazing musicians that have played with you on the album and contributed to its sound. Can you tell us a bit about them and their creative input?
Well, there is a whole page about each musician in the album booklet, where they talk about their experience working on the album and I describe how I met them and what attracted me to their playing. I don’t want to repeat all that here (the booklet is 6000 words long – hoping to tempt you to buy a physical copy). I’ve allowed space for all the featured musicians on the album to explore their own creativity – to let their personalities come through, but I can say a little more about some of my musical family.
The whole recording process began with Lewis Wright and I creating short improvised duets, formed from a single Arabic scale, on vibraphone and flugelhorn, at a recording session at The Cowshed Studio. This is the same place I started work on my first album, recording duets with bassist, Janek Gwizdala.
I wanted to recapture the spontaneity and spirit by returning to this space with its amazing vintage equipment, like the Watkins Copycat tape delay which gives the sound of my flugelhorn the slightly disturbing quality that underlies the whole album.
We experimented by varying tempo, dynamics and structure, and ended up with four of the little linking passages on the album, including the opening and closing tracks, Inhale and Exhale, both of which feature Lewis using a violin bow to create other worldly sounds.
We also recorded a very simple untitled piece, which I had composed just the day before. Six months later I recorded a different version of the same tune, this time played by just Shabaka Hutchings and Corrina Silvester. These two takes were eventually layered on top of each other, with added bass guitar and spoken word, which became La Saboteuse – the title track of the album.
Corrina is featured on all the tracks apart from the vibraphone duets. Although she’s primarily known as a percussionist, she actually plays drum kit on three tracks. It was in my home studio that she added layer upon layer of extra percussion to many of the tunes, as virtually the last part of the recording process. The chunky Arabic grooves she contributes are absolutely integral to the power and flavour of the whole album. There are 11 Corrinas on Al Emadi, on which she replicates a Bahraini drumming group all by herself. She has a great sense of how to interpret my sometimes vague instructions, finding just the right sound or colour to enhance the music, whether it’s with ankle bells, the mysterious waterphone or tuned cymbals.
Most of the greatest jazz albums in the last 4 or 5 years, were by trumpet players. Do you think there’s a secret power locked in this instrument, or is it just a matter of dedication and hard work?
I’m intrigued to know which albums you are talking about in case I’ve missed something I would love to hear.
I expect that most people think of saxophone when they think of jazz but for me, the trumpet is the true and original sound of this music. Think Louis, Dizzy, Miles… I suppose I would say that, especially given that my maternal grandfather, Terry Brown, was a successful jazz trumpet player in the UK in the 1950s and 1960s. He played alongside such greats as Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott and was a member of the original John Dankworth Seven. He later became a successful record producer working for Pye and Philips and producing many landmark recordings in the UK. Terry was my hero and he gave me my first trumpet lessons, and eventually gave me his trumpet too.
Playing the trumpet is certainly hard work and it requires hours of daily practice just to maintain a decent standard. It’s a very physical activity and the instrument itself is just an amplifier for the sound, which is actually produced with your whole body – like singing.
Perhaps that’s why it communicates to people, each player has their own very personal voice. We all think of the trumpet as loud and brilliant sounding but it also has a quiet dark side, an introverted quality that doesn’t come to mind immediately. I find the ballads of Chet baker, the quiet musings of Miles and particularly the melancholic, haunting sound of Kenny Wheeler particularly inspiring. Underlying all of these timbres though, is the essential power of air being forced through a piece of metal – it is a paradox I suppose.
Of late I’ve been seduced by the Nordic style of Arve Henriksen, Nils Petter Molvaer and absolutely loving discovering the back catalogue of the electro-acoustic genius Jon Hassell. I guess I’m a bit late to that particular party, only becoming aware of his work with Brian Eno and Fourth World after an astute reviewer drew comparisons to La Saboteuse, which is very flattering.
How do you start writing a song? How do you move from inspiration, to first few notes, to a full-fledged arrangement and recording?
I find inspiration from many sources, places I’ve visited, buildings and spaces, people and their achievements, musical discoveries, poetry, and from science and nature. Once I’ve got that initial spark of desire to create something, the hard work begins.
For me, it is a slow and methodical process translating some thought or feeling into music. I might improvise on my trumpet or bash around on the piano, sketching out my ideas and hoping to find a few fragments with potential. A lot of these get discarded along the way but I often find that on returning to a previously abandoned work, some new inspiration arises.
The arranging is a combination of imagination, experimentation and discipline.
I try to have things in pretty good shape before rehearsing or recording but I am aware that hearing my music come to life can suggest new ideas and developments. I’m not sure that I ever really finish a piece completely, often reworking things for new combinations of musicians or for a particular occasion. Nothing is set in stone, it takes a life of its own once it’s out in the world.
Tell us about 3 records that shaped who you are musically and personally.
Well almost anything recorded by Miles Davis, really there are so many that it’s impossible to choose. However, on the off chance that there is anybody reading this who hasn’t heard Kind of Blue, please just go and buy a copy. It’s an absolute classic and a great place to start if you are new to jazz.