Yazz mixes jazz and Arabian influences on orchestra tour
The National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland’s class of 2019 will share the stage with a musician whose work combines two musical legacies when its summer tour takes in Skye, Birnam, Glasgow, Belfast and Sligo this week.
Yazz Ahmed is the latest stellar soloist to join the orchestra on its annual tours, following saxophonist Iain Ballamy, trumpeter Chris Batchelor and beatboxer Jason Singh. The thirty-six-year-old trumpeter, who was born in Bahrain and moved to London with her family at the age of nine, will be performing music inspired by Bahraini pearl divers on the instrument she took up after hearing her grandfather play.
“When we arrived in London, I was offered music lessons at school,” says Yazz. “In Bahrain it’s very unusual for a woman to become a musician and most of my Bahraini family are engineers. The only person I really knew who played an instrument was my grandfather, so I decided I wanted to be like him and become a trumpet player.”
Her grandfather, Terry Brown, who had played with big names of British jazz including John Dankworth, Ronnie Scott and Tubby Hayes before concentrating on record production work, had lately taken up the trumpet again.
“He would play scales to get back into shape and it sounded amazing to me,” says Yazz. “So I didn’t really need to be told to practise, I could hear why it was important, although I really enjoyed playing anyway.”
Having given Yazz her first trumpet lesson, her grandfather also encouraged Yazz by making sure he was always present at school concerts and later, at her gigs with the Merton Youth Jazz Orchestra.
After graduating from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in 2006 Yazz formed her own band and began composing. Her early efforts reflected the music she’d been playing and listening to at the Guildhall, mostly featuring American musicians including saxophonist Joe Henderson and trumpeter Woody Shaw. But she began to feel that this music, much as she loved it, didn’t represent her as a person or as a musician.
“There was something missing,” she says. “And then I came across a record, completely by accident, that gave me a new perspective, Blue Camel by Rabih Abou-Khalil, a Lebanese oud player. Hearing him playing with another hero, trumpeter Kenny Wheeler convinced me that I could merge the Arab tradition with the jazz I’d learned to play.”
Yazz’s music has won admirers from New York to Paris and as well as the pearl diver songs, she’ll be playing arrangements by NYJOS co-director, Perth-born Malcolm Edmonstone of her suite inspired by women musicians, Polyhymnia.
“There is a real need to inspire younger generations,” she says about the idea behind Polyhymnia, “and to make it feel normal that women play instruments.”
Yazz Ahmed joins the The National Youth Jazz Orchestra of Scotland at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, Skye on GThursday 18th July; Birnam Arts Centre on Friday 19th July; New Auditorium, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Saturday 20th July; The MAC Belfast on Monday 22nd July; and Sligo Jazz Festival on Wednesday 24th July.