Yazz Ahmed – 'For me Middle Eastern music is very heartfelt and I think it relates beautifully with jazz'
- Stewart Smith
- 12 June 2018
Glasgow Jazz Festival performers Yazz Ahmed and Dinosaur's Laura Jurd discuss mixing genres, folk and electronic influences
Discussions about the new wave of British jazz have tended to focus on the London soul-jazz scene, but as this year's Glasgow Jazz Festival programme shows, there's a lot more going on. Award-winning saxophonist Helena Kay, ace drummer Fergus McCreadie and Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra are among the acts representing the revitalised Scottish scene, while England-based highlights include the brilliant avant-garde pianist Alexander Hawkins, spiritual saxophonist Nat Birchall, innovative percussionist Sarathy Korwar, and harpist Alina Bzhezhinksa's tribute to Alice and John Coltrane.
Two of the most exciting contemporary jazz bookings are Mercury Prize nominees Dinosaur (led by trumpeter Laura Jurd) and British-Bahraini trumpeter Yazz Ahmed. Both acts draw on rock and electronic influences – Ahmed has worked with Radiohead – while adding some unusual twists: English folk for Dinosaur, Arabic music for Ahmed.
While Dinosaur's 2016 debut Together As One tuned into 70s Miles Davis, its successor Wonder Trail gestures towards 80s pop via Elliot Galvin's colourful synth eruptions. Far from being some retro exercise, the album sounds utterly contemporary, thanks to Jurd's expansive compositional vision and her band's dynamism.
One of the most striking tracks is 'Set Free', where Jurd sings what sounds like an English folk song. 'I've always been quite attracted to that sort of thing. Folk music and folk melodies are something that have always been there for me.' Jurd likes to colour her songs' rock and pop harmonies with 'little sprinklings of more obscure harmony' from jazz and contemporary classical music. 'I'm always quite drawn to that: getting what is a jazz line up to play music that is perhaps coming from other places. The improvisatory element of it is still very jazz, but there's a lot of folk, pop and rock coming in.'
Album opener 'Renewal' features repetitive phrases reminiscent of Steve Reich, of whom Jurd is a huge fan. She also cites Scottish Album of the Year Award winner Anna Meredith as an inspiration. 'I'm really into what she does. She's writing for orchestras, but she's able to bring that world into the context of a band as well.'
Ahmed was inspired to play the trumpet by her maternal grandfather, the British jazzer Terry Brown, who played with Tubby Hayes and Ronnie Scott, and produced albums by Acker Bilk, Graham Collier and Harry Beckett. She studied jazz and classical music, but it wasn't until she began exploring the music of her mixed heritage that she found her true voice.
'For me Middle Eastern music is very heartfelt and I think it relates beautifully with jazz which is also a very expressive music. Both types of music feature a lot of improvisation to tell a story, express your deep feelings, and so I think that really attracted me to mixing the two types of music together. I'm also influenced by people I've worked with from other styles like Radiohead, These New Puritans and Jason Singh. I love using electronics in my music, I think it can add another dimension. It's a textural thing and also sometimes an additional voice.'
In Glasgow, Ahmed and her Hafla band will perform tracks from her acclaimed 2017 album La Saboteuse, parts of her Women Of The World suite, and pieces inspired by the music of the Bahraini pearl divers. 'Hafla is an Arabic word and it can mean a few things. It can mean a party, it can mean a concert, it's a word expressing a gathering of like-minded people. So that's how I feel, these musicians are part of my musical family and the music is quite party-like in some ways, bit of a belly dancing groove.'
Various venues, Glasgow, Wed 20–Sun 24 Jun.