Name: Yazz Ahmed
Occupation: Trumpeter, flugelhornist, composer, improviser
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Tell me about your instrument and/or tools, please. How would you describe the relationship with it? What are its most important qualities and how do they influence the musical results and your own performance?
I play the trumpet and flugelhorn, but also use a Kaoss Pad 3, an Eventide H9 Max and a Boss Vocal Processor to enhance the natural timbre of these instruments by adding extra colours and looping or manipulating my sound.
My trumpets are an extension of myself – they are amplifiers of my voice, allowing me to share my stories and experiences sonically. Adding electronics to the mix takes my sound to new realms that would be impossible to achieve without these extra tools.
The trumpet (and flugelhorn) both have very distinct voices, which I choose depending on the character of the piece I am playing. All brass instruments are played using the air from your lungs and the shape your mouth creates to form the notes, very much like a singer would. So for me, the trumpet is a very personal instrument – every player has their own unique sound.
All these possibilities enable me to react organically when I’m in the flow of improvising.
What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?
Composition and improvisation go hand-in-hand for me. I try my best not to get too bogged down in the theoretical side of writing and try to respond emotionally to the subject of the music I am creating by improvising.
However, my experience and knowledge of compositional techniques helps me to assemble my ideas into structured pieces that make sense to the listener – I suppose it’s similar to writing a story – you have a beginning, middle and end with twists and turns, different characters and landscapes.
Derek Bailey defined improvising as the search for material which is endlessly transformable. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his perspective, what kind of materials have turned to be particularly transformable and stimulating for you?
I love working with field recordings – interesting sounds that I have captured - like birdsong for example. Or I might record myself bashing an old metal dust pan lid with a tambourine to create little fragments of sound which I can use as collage material.
I like to make crazy loops and unexpected soundscapes in the studio from these recordings, which then influence new melodies and grooves I probably never would imagined without these experiments.
Purportedly, John Stevens of the Spontaneous Music Ensemble had two basic rules to playing in his ensemble: (1) If you can't hear another musician, you're playing too loud, and (2) if the music you're producing doesn't regularly relate to what you're hearing others create, why be in the group. What's your perspective on this statement and how, more generally, does playing in a group compare to a solo situation?
I totally agree with this statement. In a band setting, it’s important to listen to one another and make music collectively. Improvising in a group is like having a conversation, not shouting over each other, unless that’s the vibe one is going for!
Playing solo can be a lonely experience – you don’t have anyone to bounce your ideas off. However, in my solo set I can feel more connected with the audience, as the ‘conversation’ is just between me and them.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind for your improvisations and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I set time aside and schedule work sessions in my diary. I have found that I’m most creative in the morning, while my mind is rested and clear.
It’s important for me to be in the moment and not think about the past or the future. Dwelling on the past can bring up feelings of sadness or regret, thinking of the future may bring fear or anxiety (or hope) but happiness is found in the present.
I also need to have a ‘clear desk’ - completed all admin and emails etc. otherwise I will be distracted by these things. My mind needs to be peaceful and relaxed.
Can you talk about how your decision process works in a live setting?
On stage I listen to what’s going on and strive to tell a collective story, just adding my statements when I find the space, hoping to move the narrative forward.
My band and I sometimes rehearse or discuss certain themes or moods as a possible starting point or destination for improvisation. These ideas can also be an escape route if we become stuck or lost. The majority of my compositions are structured but include lots of moments with space for freedom, chaos and surprise.
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and performance and what are some of your strategies and approaches of working with them?
Before each performance, I always have a long sound check, which gives us a chance to explore the physical space and natural acoustics of each new venue. However, the room always feels very different once there is an audience, both in terms of acoustics but more importantly, energy.
In the live shows with my quartet, we usually start by playing three pieces linked together, about half-an-hour of continuous music, before I speak to the audience. This gives us time to really settle into the new space, casting a spell and making the stage feel like home.
How is playing live in front of an audience and in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally?
I see performing in front of an audience and in the studio as very different experiences. I think generally I take more risks when playing live to an audience – there is an interaction between the performers and listeners – we’re on a journey together and the audience have a big part to play in the direction the music takes.
Trying to recreate that energy in the studio is very difficult. I tend to think more whilst in the studio – imagining the bigger picture in each piece or solo and how everything fits together. It can sometimes be quite nerve wracking knowing that you’re being recorded and that later you’ll have to analyse everything in order to pick your favourite takes.
I find it exhausting listening to myself because I am my own worst critic!
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
I suppose my 2017 release La Saboteuse was my ‘breakthrough’ moment, in that the album brought my music to a global audience, outside the confines of the jazz scene. It led to an invitation to perform at NYC Winter Jazz Festival, WOMAD, Love Supreme and at festivals and venues all across Europe.
Probably the most special performance to date for me was playing my compositions with my band and the BBC Concert Orchestra at the 2021 EFG London Jazz Festival. This was the first time I had heard my pieces played by an orchestra - everything sounded so rich and full - it was quite overwhelming! This was a dream of mine for many years and I suppose I had been inspired by the collaboration of Miles Davis and Gil Evans when they created the albums Porgy and Bess, Sketches of Spain and Miles Ahead, which were all with a large ensemble.
I also teamed up with Noel Langley, Tim Garland, Ed Puddick, Guy Barker and Callum Au to arrange and orchestrate my compositions for the event – I’d never written for orchestra before and needed a bit of help. We started working on the technical side of the concert in late summer aiming to start rehearsals in November.
This was an extremely memorable experience, which I will never forget, and I am so grateful for this opportunity. I hope to one day perform this show again.
In a way, improvisations remind us of the transitory nature of life. What, do you feel, can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Music is universal. Even when listening to songs in a language I don’t understand I have an emotional response. Music can make us feel like crying, dancing or reminiscing. It can bring a sense of calm, it can excite, it can transport us to dreamworlds. It speaks to us on a deeper, more primal level, engaging with a part of the brain that is preverbal, not bounded by intellectual capacity, education or vocabulary. We feel music in our stomach, which was once considered to be where our souls resided, rather than in our heads.
Of course the meaning or message conveyed by any particular piece of music will be totally different for each individual listener, but that’s one of the beauties of this artform.