Jazz interview with Arabic jazz trumpeter Yazz Ahmed. An interview by email in writing.
JazzBluesNews.Space: – First let’s start with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music?
Yazz Ahmed: – Growing up in Bahrain until the age of nine, music was just a part of life. My mother had been a ballet dancer and would listen to classical music, jazz and reggae in the house. I also heard the pop music and traditional arabic music on the local radio stations.
JBN.S: – What got you interested in picking up the trumpet? What teacher or teachers helped you progress to the level of playing you have today? What made you choose the trumpet?
YA: – Terry, my maternal grandfather, was a successful jazz trumpet player in London in the 1950s and 60s, later going on to be a respected record producer. When I was offered the chance to learn a musical instrument at my new school in the UK, I naturally chose the trumpet, because I loved Terry so much.
JBN.S: – How did your sound evolve over time? What did you do to find and develop your sound?
YA: – I learnt a great deal playing in the bands and orchestras at Merton Music Foundation, where I also had trumpet lessons with Norma Whitson, who was a great inspiration to me. I often wonder if the fact that my first teacher was a woman encouraged me to keep going in my playing career. Together we worked very hard on my technique, initially playing the classical repertoire. I always loved jazz but didn’t know how the musicians delivered their craft but started to teach myself from the age of 18. It was a long journey, which continued through my time at Kingston University until I eventually gained a place to study for a post graduate Masters Degree in Jazz at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
Here I was exposed to all kinds of new music, building on the love I had for the classic Blue Note recordings and the British jazz my grandfather had introduced me to, including my favourite trumpet player, Kenny Wheeler. It was through searching for recordings of Kenny that I discovered an album by Rabih Abou-Khalil called Blue Camel. This was a watershed moment in my development as an artist as it opened my eyes and ears to the possibility of combining my love for jazz with the music of my childhood and my Bahraini heritage.
JBN.S: – What practice routine or exercise have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical ability especially pertaining to rhythm?
YA: – I always start the day with a routine warm up covering all the fundamentals when playing the trumpet and still use the classical studies I started with. I also listen to as much music as possible. Recording from home has been an important learning tool – it is sometimes painful to listen back to myself, but very educational. Rhythm, or a sense of timing is fundamental to the physical act of playing the trumpet and it is a focus in all of my practice.
JBN.S: – Which harmonies and harmonic patterns do you prefer now? You’re playing is very sensitive, deft, it’s smooth, and I’d say you drift more toward harmony than dissonance. There is some dissonance there, but you use it judiciously. Is that a conscious decision or again, is it just an output of what goes in?
YA: – I’m interested in all music. Lately I’ve been exploring quartertones, Arabic scales and belly-dancing patterns. I love the sounds from the Middle East but I’m also very curious about electronic music and how these composers create programmed drum patterns. I’ve been listening to Aphex Twin. I love glitchy music, half machine, half human.
I’m not afraid of dissonance and I think I have an aversion to harmonic clichés. I would say that I compose in a more horizontal rather than vertical way, so that harmony is a result of counterpoint, both rhythmic and melodic. Sometimes three or four independent lines converge in my mind to create something unexpected in harmonic terms.
However, I’m also a huge fan of Kenny Wheeler’s writing, his harmony and orchestration and I know that his influence is present in my writing.
JBN.S: – How to prevent disparate influences from coloring what you’re doing?
YA: – Actually, I think I do the opposite. I’m always trying to find a way to reflect a composite of all the music I encounter, including sounds from the environment both natural and man made.
JBN.S: – What’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?
YA: – You don’t need to understand music to be moved by it but perhaps the greater your knowledge the deeper and more nuanced your appreciation can become. It’s a strange thing, but the opposite can also be true. Sometimes the less you know, the more you feel.
JBN.S: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; you’re okay with giving the people what they want?
YA: – I never try to give the people what they want. I write for myself, from the heart, drawing inspiration from whatever interests me at that time. I think it would be foolish and condescending to try and second-guess what might be pleasing to others. I hope that by being true to myself, my authentic voice will speak, to those who want to listen.
JBN.S: – Please any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions, which you’d like to share with us?
YA: – The first tale from the road which springs to mind is the time my vibraphone player had to be rescued, having locked himself into the toilet in Herbie Hancock’s dressing room, just before we were going to watch his concert at the Alfa Jazz Festival in Lviv, Ukraine.
JBN.S: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of the standard tunes are half a century old?
YA: – We need to remember that standards are just the pop songs of their time, so we should make new standards from the popular music of today, and create new music, that is relevant to the 21st century. We don’t need to dumb down to achieve this, but rather we should interact with the audience, inviting them to taste unfamiliar sounds and ideas with us in a spirit of shared exploration.
JBN.S: – John Coltrane said that music was his spirit. How do you understand the spirit and the meaning of life?
YA: – I’m a complete novice in the area of spirituality – I can’t claim to have any insights to share. I think I just go with the flow of what life brings me, seeking to learn and grow all the time from my experiences.
JBN.S: – If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?
YA: – To teach more people how to read and write music. Music notation is a dying language and people are being starved of the gems this important knowledge brings. The ability to read a musical score and hear it with your inner ear is a wonderful thing.
JBN.S: – Who do you find yourself listening to these days?
YA: – Well I’ve been listening to less and less jazz and just following my ears in the great maze of music available online. This has taken me to unexpected places like Tunisian Art Rock or early minimalist classical music and contemporary string quartet compositions.
JBN.S: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go?
YA: – I’d like to travel into the future, to a time when we can visit all the other planets in our solar system and beyond to the stars. I’ve been composing a new work for string quartet, one movement from a suite called The Planets 2018 (to mark the centenary of Holst’s iconic work) and I’ve become fascinated with the science of astronomy.
JBN.S: – I have been asking you so far, now may I have a question from yourself…
YA: – Where do my two cats go at night? I’d love to be able to follow them on their nightly expeditions.
JBN.S: – Thanks very much for answers … 🙂
JBN.S: – So putting that all together, how are you able to harness that now?
YA: – Thanks for asking me to take part. I hope my answers are of some interest to your readers, it was certainly fun thinking about the questions. All the best, Yazz!
Interview by Simon Sargsyan