“Women in jazz must have tough skin”: jazz trumpeter Yazz Ahmed

Yazz Ahmed performing in 2019Dirk Neven

If you haven’t heard of Yazz Ahmed yet, that’s about to change. Ahmed, an award-winning trumpeter who has worked with Radiohead and These New Puritans, releases a new collaborative album blending classic jazz with her Arabic roots. Prior to the album’s release, we asked him how his new sound and jazz debut

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

When the project was presented to me, it took me some time 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 that I could use to reflect how I compose with my own stuff. It was the only Chick Corea album I owned and I listened to it to remind myself why I bought it because it was really cool and then I listened to the first track “It” and I 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 I used the compositing tools to make that arrangement. I take my cells and then I expand the themes or reverse the notes or change some of the intervals and add my own personality. I found a Turkish band that I really like and edited it to match what I wrote. Yeah, so I used a lot of little segments that I liked and experimented with and that’s what came out.

Another striking thing is how different the vibe of your new version of the track is. Why did you choose this timbre and this particular sound?

As it developed, it became pretty obvious that it had strong riffs, so the music I wrote was pretty heavy. This is where I said to myself that I would like very heavy guitar and very heavy drums but also acoustic instruments like the piano to represent Chick. I also like the sound of the bass clarinet; I think it goes very well with my music, so things just happened. In my head, I didn’t automatically think I wanted something Turkish proggy but I had something heavy in mind I guess. I had listened to an album by Tortoise called Standards which had some pretty distorted drums in it and I think that inspired my drum writing and that sound you hear in my arrangement.

Yazz Ahmed’s award-winning album Polyhymnia

What advice would you give to 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 British jazz like Kenny Wheeler you might like more progressive jazz or more electronic jazz. There are so many different types of jazz – the genre is huge, so the first step is to just listen to a lot and find what you like. Just simple things like playing records, but I also guess 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 the jazz language and look into people like charlie parker and bebop language. But, you know, it’s a choice, it’s a more academic path and a lot of people might not want to do that. I always found that side wasn’t authentic to me because I’m not an American musician, so I was more drawn to British jazz and electronic music and found my own voice.

What is your advice to women in jazz?

You have to have fairly thick skin. There are obviously 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 tough and work super hard because it’s very difficult in my experience for women to be accepted as good musicians. There’s this bias that we’ve all been taught early on of “you throw like a girl” or that kind of stupid childhood chatter, but it affects people. So train super super hard and – it sounds really awful – expect negative feedback, but be tough and strong and educate others that we are equals and women can play great too. Stand in solidarity with each other.

Finally, what do you say to people who want to get into jazz?

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

Ada J. Kenney