Polyhymnia: an espresso with Yazz Ahmed

Image Credits: Yazz Ahmed © www.yazzahmed.com

June 2, 2020


After “Finding My Way Home” and “La Saboteuse”, trumpeter and flugelhorn player Yazz Ahmed returns with “Polyhymnia”, a collection of six original songs composed and arranged by the British-Bahraini artist who involved 25 musicians for the recordings.

> Ivano Rossato

Can you tell us about the new album “Polyhymnia”?

Polyhymnia came to fruition thanks to the Tomorrow’s Warriors who commissioned me to compose music for the Women of the World Festival back in 2015. The suite was premiered on International Women’s Day at the Southbank Centre, London, and was performed by the Nu Civilisation Orchestra. I chose to write about women whose lives resonated with me in some personal way. I began by researching their stories, backgrounds, and the music that surrounded them. Learning about their journeys helped me with the creative process, thinking first in an intellectual way and then expressing these ideas emotionally.
For example, my composition dedicated to Rosa Parks is based on the number of the bus, 2857, on which she famously made her protest. That number is represented both metrically and melodically in the structure. I constructed an abstract tone row and used a formula to create a melodic line over an asymmetric rhythmic pattern. 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. 2857 is a piece of two halves, the first expressing the quiet dignity of her action, the second, the storm of change to come, and, as with all my compositions, I like to balance the written material with room for free improvisation, here creating space for people to let off steam and express a little justifiable rage.

There are countless more women deserving of recognition, deserving songs of praise to be composed in their honour.

You wrote: “Polyhymnia is a celebration of female courage, determination, and creativity”…
Yes, I felt compelled to share the stories of these remarkable women to a wider audience. Perhaps I also had a secret desire to showcase the powerful performances of the musicians featured on the album, most of whom happen to be women. There are countless more women deserving of recognition, deserving songs of praise to be composed in their honour. This is just my quiet voice hoping, by shedding light on the achievements of these courageous role models, to inspire others to become all that they can be.
There is a lot of “space” in the compositions of “Polyhymnia”; is it a premeditated result?
Yes, I always like to leave some space for my musicians to improvise, express themselves, to give them a voice, whether that is a featured solo or a ‘conversation’ between a group of musicians. For example, there is a section in Deeds Not Words, (dedicated to the Suffragettes), where your can hear an exchange of ideas between Samuel Hällkvist, Josie Simmons, Ralph Wyld and myself, our individual voices all contributing to something greater, representing the sister-hood of the Suffragettes, marching shoulder-to-shoulder in the fight for equality.
How do you think you have evolved artistically compared to “La Saboteuse”?
This was the first time I had written for such a large ensemble, which was a challenge, but a very enjoyable one! Whilst researching these courageous women, I also discovered music new to my ears thereby adding colours to the palette at my disposal. I also feel that my last album, “La Saboteuse”, was largely inward looking, dealing with my own creative struggles, but with “Polyhymnia”, I’m looking outward for my inspiration, celebrating and praising the achievements of remarkable women. Looking back I think maybe Polyhymnia, the Greek goddess of sacred art, music and poetry, helped me to conquer La Saboteuse, the inner critic, my anti-muse, which was the subject of my last album. 
The project involved a large number of musicians: what was the recording process?
The initial recording sessions for the album took place over a weekend in August, 2016, at which we recorded the majority of the rhythm section parts, some of the horns and the chanting. My partner and I later recorded the rest of the horns and additional rhythm section overdubs over the following year. All the time the music was evolving and transforming into something I felt really proud of. I think the favourite part of the recording process was the two day trip to Copenhagen to record Samuel Hällkvist overdubbing his guitar parts. That was pretty much the final piece of the jigsaw and it felt really good to know that we were almost ready to share the music.
What are you planning for the near future?
I have plenty of projects on the go even during this time of ‘pause’. I’m currently planning three releases: a remix EP of “Polyhymnia”; a live EP of my side project, Electric Dreams; and my new band album, which we started recording earlier this year. I also have a new piece, commissioned by the online streaming channel, Adult Swim, which will be available to stream within the next few weeks. The track features Noel Langley and myself playing trumpets and flugelhorns, Samuel Hällkvist on guitars, and Joshua Blackmore on drums.
Polyhymnia: an espresso with Yazz Ahmed copyright Jazzespresso 2020.
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