Yazz Ahmed performing in 2019Dirk Neven

If you haven’t already heard of Yazz Ahmed, that’s about to change. Ahmed, an award winning trumpet player who's worked with Radiohead and These New Puritans, is releasing a new collaborative album mixing classical jazz with her arabic roots. Ahead of the album’s release we ask her about how her new sound and getting started in jazz

One of the songs on the album is based on a 30 second track by Chick Corea (an American jazz composer). Why did you choose to expand this track into five minutes?

When the project was presented to me it took me a while to make a decision; I tried to find a piece of music that had enough written material for me to experiment with. I wanted to find something I could use it to reflect how I compose with my own stuff. This was the only Chick Corea album that I owned and I listened through it to remember why I bought it because it was really cool and then listened to the first track “It” and thought “wow yeah there’s so much going on here” and it really sparked my imagination. What I did then was I found cells, little bits that I liked, and used the tools as to how I compose to make this arrangement. I take my cells and then I would expand on the themes or reverse notes or change some of the intervals and add my own personality. I found a Turkish group I really like and changed it to fit with what I had written. Yeah, so I used a lot of the little segments I liked and experimented and that’s what came out.

Another thing that’s striking is how different the vibe of your new version of the track. Why did you go with this particular timbre and sound?

As it was developing, it became quite apparent that there were strong riffs so the music I’d written felt quite heavy. That’s where I thought I’d love really heavy guitar and really heavy drums but also some acoustic instruments like the piano to represent Chick. I also love the sound of bass clarinet; I think it goes really well with my music so things mostly led on to one another. In my head, I didn’t automatically think that I wanted something Turkish proggy but I did have in mind something heavy I think. I had listened to an album by Tortoise called Standards that had quite distorted drums on it and I think that inspired my drum writing and that sound that you hear in my arrangement.

Yazz Ahmed's award-winning album Polyhymnia

What's your advice for people wanting to start listening to jazz?

My advice would be to listen to as much jazz as possible and find what you like because it might not be bebop, it might be UK Jazz like Kenny Wheeler, you might like more proggy jazz or more electronic jazz. There are so many different types of jazz – the genre is massive so the first step is just to listen to lots of stuff and find what you like. Just simple things like playing along to records but also I suppose it’s important to know where jazz comes from, its history, and if you want to come from an academic point of view it might be useful to learn jazz language and look into people like Charlie Parker and bebop language. But, you know, that’s a choice, that’s a more academic route and lots of people might not want to do that. I’ve always found that that side is not genuine for me as I’m not an American musician so I was more drawn to UK Jazz and electronic music and found my own voice. 

What's your advice for women in jazz?


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You have to be quite thick-skinned. There are obviously unfortunately still expectations of you before you even play a note that you might not be so great. It’s very very difficult so I think you have to be very thick-skinned and work super hard because it’s very difficult in my experience for women to be accepted as good musicians. There’s that prejudice that we’ve all been taught form an early stage of “you throw like a girl” or that kind of stupid childhood chat but that does affect people. So practice super super hard and – this sounds really awful – expect negative feedback but be tough and strong as well as educating others that we are equals and that women can play very well as well. Be supportive to one another.

Finally, what do you say to people who want to start playing jazz?

What was really helpful for me was joining a ‘blow band’, a rehearsal band, so if you could find a band like that it’s really helpful to rehearse every week with some friends and it’s really helpful to improve your sight-reading or ensemble playing or soloing. It’s a good place to make mistakes and learn (and also make friends). You can also go to jam sessions. I always thought going to them would help me get work but they never did, so I don’t know how useful they are. I instead started having jam sessions at home and secret plays – I had a group on Facebook that had various people and we’d try out new ideas or just play standards so it was a good place to make mistakes and work on things.