British-Bahraini Trumpeter Yazz Ahmed Empowers Women on Ambitious ‘Polyhymnia’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

There is so much more than just what meets the ears, and that alone is a proverbial feast. British- Bahraini trumpeter and band leader Yazz Ahmed’s Polyhymnia is cinematic in scope, stimulating, ambitious, infectious, and inspiring. Her music has been described as ‘psychedelic Arabic Jazz,’ a convenient way of describing her unique blurring of conventional jazz, Arabic folk traditions and electronic sound design. Widely hailed for her previous two albums, this will undoubtedly steepen her rising trajectory. In 2015 Tomorrow’s Warriors, with support form PRS Women Make Music, commissioned Yazz to write a suite inspired by courageous and influential women. Polyhymnia was premiered by the NU Civilisation Orchestra at the WOW! International Women’s Day in March 2015. The album is a six piece suite devoted to these notable women – Rosa Parks, Malala Yousafzai, Ruby Bridges, Haifa Al-Mansour, and Barbara Thompson. The music conveys their struggles and triumphs, essentially delivering a powerful message of empowerment through large ensembles of 20 or more musicians and singers.

The concept evolved since its first performance. A year later Yazz was able to explore writing music for her newly developed quarter-tone flugelhorn, a unique instrument that enable her to get closer to the ‘blue notes’ in Arabic music, fusing her sound with that of her heritage. She also began incorporating new elements and drew on a wider pool of artists including members of her Hafla band, alongside some of her favorite musicians working on the London scene. The core band itself has 14 members blending acoustic and electric instruments, but the credits denote additional contribution such as “cosmic alto saxophone lines, additional guitar textures, additional Fender Rhodes,” and in some cases voices, all of which are added by additional contributors.  The booklet provides rich history and sources of Yazz’s inspiration as well as stunning artwork from Sophie Bass.

The first track, “Lahan Al-Mansour (Melody of Al-Mansour)”, has already been released as a single, dedicated to Saudi Arabia’s first female film director, whose solitary voice challenges the social pressures the females face in one of the world’s most restrictive countries. The composition opens with Yazz’s flugelhorn invocation of Polyhymnia, the ancient Greek Muse of music, poetry and dance: a Goddess of the arts, who inspired these compositions, this one exploring Arabic scales and rhythms in call and response between the instruments with terrific soloing by Yazz on trumpet and Tori Freestone on soprano sax.

”Ruby Bridges” is the story of the first and only African-American child to enter the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans in 1960. She and her mother were escorted to school by Federal Marshalls to ward off the angry crowds outside. White parents removed their children from the school and all but one teacher walked out. Today Ruby Bridges is the chair of the Ruby Bridges Foundation which promotes tolerance. Yazz invokes the spirit of a New Orleans carnival in this piece as she says, “with a simple melody, conveying the innocent, pure viewpoint of a child, contrasted with harmonic dissonance, carrying an undercurrent of menace.” Yazz solos on flugelhorn with other soloists on tenor, piano, and drums. 

”One Girl Among Many” is dedicated to Malala Yousafzai, an advocate for female education during the oppressive Taliban regime in Pakistan, Yousafzai became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize at the age of 17. This piece contains lyrics from Yousafzai and 14 voices and has a solo piano introduction, a flugelhorn solo from Yazz and a piano coda from a different pianist. Yazz describes her concept, ‘Malala’s speaking voice has both a natural rhythm and a curiously musical quality to its cadences. I took this as inspiration for my composition, by creating melody lines bases on fragments of her speech, choosing the sentences and phrases that impacted on me the most. Framed by two improvised piano meditations, “One Girl Among Many” is both a call to action and a hymn to the universal thirst for knowledge, in gratitude for the lessons Malala teaches us through her words and actions.

”2857” is for Rosa Parks and we’ll assume that you know her story well. The title is based on the number of the bus where she made her famous protest. Yazz says, “That number is represented both metrically and melodically in the structure. It’s a piece of two halves, the first expressing the quiet dignity of her action, the second, the storm of change to come. I have used mathematics as a compositional tool before, but never feel constrained by any rules I may set myself, allowing the music to find its own course once the process has begun. I like to leave room for expression and improvisation, here creating space for people to let off steam and express a little justifiable rage.” As such, Tori Freestone does a cadenza on tenor, and a collective interlude has Yazz with electronic effects on her flugelhorn, grunge guitar, drums, and two saxophonists. Yazz also solos on trumpet mid-piece. This one has a very avant-garde feel, not unlike Sun Ra.

”Deeds Not Words” was the battle cry of the women’s group, The Suffragettes, who paved the way for women to vote in early 20th Century Britain. The piece is largely a rework of the Suffragettes’ protest song, “Shoulder to Shoulder” with added jazz harmony, alongside Arabic scales and rhythms. It’s intended to give the sense of single voices joining together, spreading an idea and becoming a powerful movement. As such, the piece begins with percussion and drum duet, and improvisations follow on baritone saxophone, trumpet (Yazz), two guitars, and vibraphone.

”Barbara,” the final composition, a celebratory effort, is dedicated to Barbara Thompson, a pioneering jazz musician who took up saxophone in 1963 when it was a brave move for one to do so in Britain. She became one of the U.K.’s leading saxophonists, bandleaders and composers. Like Haifaa Al-Mansour, Thompson felt the call to creativity that must be answered. Yazz honors Thompson with a minimalist piece that blends joyful melodic material with polyrhythmic motifs, shared across all instruments of the band, building to a triumphant climax. Solos come from Yazz on flugelhorn, guitar, a multi-tracked alto, and bass clarinet.

This is clearly one of the most important pieces of music in any genre to appear this year. It is stunning and unlike almost anything else you’ve likely heard.


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