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Acclaimed trumpeter lifts the lid on her career ahead of performance at the 2018 Lichfield Festival

The British-Bahraini trumpeter Yazz Ahmed is appearing as the featured soloist and composer with the National Youth Jazz Orchestra when they play in Lichfield Cathedral on July 11 as part of the 2018 Lichfield Festival.

Before her appearance in the city, she spoke to Peter Bacon about her career to date…

Peter Bacon: There was music in your family – did that provide the spark for your own interest? And can you remember back to what it was that you found so intriguing and exciting in music at an early age?

Yazz Ahmed

Yazz Ahmed

Yazz Ahmed: My mum was a ballet dancer before I came along. She played me the music she used to dance to, I can remember Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, but she was also a big reggae fan. Her father, Terry Brown, was a jazz trumpeter in the 1950s and later became a record producer. I loved the spirit of the British jazz records he played to me and he is the one who got me started on the trumpet.

Making and listening to music just seemed like a fun part of everyday life.

Thinking about this I’ve just recalled a memory of writing plays that my sisters and I would perform, when I was very young, and we would accompany some of the acts/scenes with music like Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition. I think I loved that music could enhance emotion.

PB: Did you have easy access to music and a chance to learn an instrument at school? What were the key “boosters” in your musical education and development?

YA: Sadly not in Bahrain, where I lived until I was nine years old, although I did have a recorder and guitar, which I taught myself to play.

At school in the UK things changed and I was given the opportunity to learn the trumpet at the Merton Music Foundation.

My first teacher, Norma Whitson, was very encouraging and not just about my trumpet playing but also helping to build my confidence socially.

After attending Kingston University I decided I really wanted to get a place on the postgraduate jazz course at the Guildhall taking a year out to study and prepare, with the help of Nick Smart, now head of jazz at the Royal Academy of Music. That year at the Guildhall was amazing for me. The visiting artists I got to work with, the dedicated staff and my fellow students, including Shabaka Hutchings, John Scott and Jay Darwish, were great inspirations to me.

PB: You have been exploring your own rich cultural heritage in your music – tell us about that…

YA: It began with the discovery of the album Blue Camel by Rabih Abou-Khalil, which I stumbled across when searching for records featuring Kenny Wheeler. It completely took me by surprise to hear the music of my childhood fused with jazz improvisation and set me on a path of self-discovery.

This has included not only my exploration of traditional Arabic music but also has led me to discover the poetry of Rumi and I’ve also studied reading and writing in Arabic.

I even commissioned a special instrument to be made by Leigh McKinney of Eclipse Trumpets, a quarter-tone flugelhorn, which enables me to play Arabic scales more accurately. This instrument will be featured in my composition for NYJO.

PB: I think this might be your first visit to Lichfield, but you have strong links with jazz in the Midlands (and especially Birmingham) – tell us about that.

YA: Well I know some of the musicians on the local scene in Birmingham, David Austin-Grey and Percy Pursglove for example, and I have played quite a few gigs in the Midlands with my own bands, recently performing at 1000 Trades with Andrea Vicari. However, my main connection with the region comes from my Fellowship with Birmingham Jazzlines, during which I researched and composed my suite Alhaan Al Siduri based on the unique folk music of Bahrain and premiered at the CBSO Centre in 2015. I’ve also enjoyed taking part in the amazing Cheltenham Jazz Festival a couple of times and I’m really grateful to Tony Dudley-Evans for all his support over the years.

PB: You’ll be working with NYJO for the Lichfield performance – have you worked with them much before?

YA: I went to NYJO when I was younger starting with NYJO 2 alongside my sister Iman, who used to play trombone. I had great mentoring from Paul Eshelby who ran the band at that time. However, to be honest, once I got the chance to play with the main band I didn’t feel like I fitted in. There are a lot of reasons why but perhaps the competitive environment didn’t really suit me at that stage in my development. I’m also happy to see that the band is definitely more inclusive now compared to my days there.

I did learn a lot though, sight reading, section playing and how a big band works, even though I wasn’t having a great time.

I think NYJO is without doubt a really important institution in the musical life of the UK and I’m really happy to see the changes in structure and direction it has taken over the last few years. Thanks to working with Phil Meadows and NYJO London, as well as leading workshops, I have experienced these positive developments first hand.

PB: For Lichfield you are presenting Female Jazz Icons. Tell me a bit more about this, about the great women musicians in jazz down the years and why they mean so much.

YA: I feel very honoured to be part of this programme, presenting female jazz icons, however, I do hope that myself, amongst others, are seen firstly as musicians and composers rather than ‘female’ musicians and composers.

There have been many inspirational female pioneers in jazz but they are few and far between. Some that spring to mind are Ingrid Jensen, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Carla Bley, Geri Allen and Regina Carter.

I’m still listening to and educating myself about the great women jazz musicians throughout the years but I would also like to mention current artists that I find inspirational from the UK scene, such as Tori Freestone, Alcyona Mick, Brigitte Beraha, and Nikki Yeoh.

PB: There are current initiatives to tackle gender inequality in music (PRS’s Keychange, the work Jazzlines is doing, etc), and to encourage more women to take part – tell us about this and your own part in that work.

YA: I really welcome the Keychange initiative, to move towards gender balance in festival programming. This might have been inspired by the success of forward thinking European jazz festivals like the one in Berlin and I think it presents great opportunities for performers and audiences alike.

As far as my part in this goes I actually concentrate on just turning up and doing my best. It does happen that my bands do contain men and women but these are just the people I like working with. I know it’s a hot topic at the moment but was quite amazed when an article I was invited to write for the Vinyl Factory on this subject got shared hundreds of times around the internet.

Fighting the cause for women in jazz is not my main motivation but, given the lack of female role models I had when I was developing, I do feel a duty to inspire younger musicians to express themselves. I hope just the fact that I’m up there, doing my thing, can be a quiet catalyst for change.

PB: What can people expect to hear at the concert in Lichfield Cathedral – what would you like them to take from the experience?

YA: I believe you are going to hear several of the new pieces by female composers, which NYJO commissioned this year. These include my own contribution, Nurrquss, which will receive it’s premiere in Lichfield. The Arabic meaning of the title is, ‘We Dance’ and the inspiration for the piece was my recent discovery of a little known sub genre, ‘Tunisian Rave’, which I absolutely love. So you’ll hear some driving rhythms and I also call for some of the players to join me in a melody which features the use of quarter-tones, the ‘blue’ notes in Arabic music.

I’ve also arranged three of my other compositions especially for this concert. Al Emadi and La Saboteuse are both taken from my last album and Barbara, dedicated to saxophonist Barbara Thompson, is one movement from my suite, Polyhymnia, which is in the recording process at the moment.

I hope the audience will be thrilled and inspired by witnessing the talented young musicians in NYJO and that my contribution to the evening takes them on a little journey of the imagination.

Yazz Ahmed and the National Youth Jazz Orchestra are playing at 7.30pm on July 11. Tickets are now on sale and can be booked at www.lichfieldfestival.org.

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