Album number three from Yazz Ahmed is a profoundly personal collection of songs.
Named after the Greek goddess, Polyhymnia was originally composed and arranged over six weeks for the Women Of the World Festival back in 2015, Ahmed then expanded the project creating her musical response to the stories and achievements of extraordinary women.
The new LP features six pieces that act as tributes to celebrated women throughout histories such as Rosa Parks, Malala Yousafzai, Ruby Bridges, Haifa Al-Mansour, Barbara Thompson and the Suffragette movement.
Much like her previous album, there’s an Arabic core running through many of the tracks but with a diverse range of moods and sounds to keep the collection fresh and exciting.
Stream the album in full below and as you listen let Ahmed guide you through track-by-track…
My last album, La Saboteuse, was largely inward-looking, dealing with my own creative struggles, but on Polyhymnia I’m looking outward for my inspiration, celebrating and praising the achievements of remarkable women.
Of course, there are thousands of amazing role models I could have chosen; this suite is just a snapshot of where I was at the time. If I were starting it today, then I’m pretty sure there would be a piece dedicated to that incredible young woman, Greta Thunberg. Witnessing all she has achieved in just over a year, creating a global movement stemming from one simple action, is truly inspiring.
Dedicated to Haifaa Al-Mansour, Saudi Arabia’s first female film director, the track opens with a collective improvisation, a call to creativity and a salute to the Muse, Polyhymnia.
The composition, with it’s driving theme carried by the trumpet section, continues my exploration of Arabic scales and rhythms, which began on my first album, Finding My Way Home.
The main soloist, alongside myself on harmonised trumpet, is the stunning improvisor, Tori Freestone, who plays an evocative high energy solo on soprano saxophone.
Also, listen out for the cosmic alto saxophone of Camilla George who interacts with Tori halfway through her solo.
My composition is inspired by the interviews civil rights activist, Ruby Bridges, gave as an adult, recalling her experience as a six-year old girl running the gauntlet of hatred as she became the first African-American child to desegregate an all-white school in Louisiana.
She imagined all the shouting and jostling, as she was escorted by US Marshals, must have been some kind of Mardi Gras parade.
This piece reflects the festive spirit of a New Orleans carnival contrasted with dissonant underlying harmony, carrying a sense of menace.
You can hear solos from Tori Freestone, tenor sax, Alcyona Mick, piano, Sophie Alloway, drums, and myself on flugelhorn, this time using my Kaoss Pad in between phrases.
Listen out for Corinna Silvester’s go-go bells – clue: she only plays them twice!
One Girl Among Many
The story of Malala Yousafzai made headlines around the world. In 2012 she survived an assassination attempt at the hands of a Taliban gunman for her public advocacy of the basic human right to education.
This piece contains excerpts from her moving address, given to the United Nations Youth Assembly in 2013.
I extracted the hidden melodies in her speaking voice, choosing phrases that made the greatest impression on me. You will hear Malala’s words spoken in unison by the ensemble, sometimes as a premonition of the melody which follows, other times as an echo.
My composition is bookended by two beautiful piano meditations, opened by Alcyona Mick and closed by Sarah Tandy.
Dedicated to ‘the mother of the freedom movement’, Rosa Parks, 2857 is actually the number of the bus on which she made her famous protest.
It’s impossible to attempt to convey the magnitude of the impact she made in a simple piece of music. I just wanted to create a tribute to her and bring her story to anyone out there who is unaware.
I created this composition by using the number of the bus to give me melodic and metric material. Music and maths are closely related, however, in this case the numbers were really more of a way to unlock some deeper emotional response in me, a bit like using I Ching hexagrams to help make decisions.
Tori plays a mournful tenor sax cadenza which links the two halves of this piece. See if you can identify the voices of Nubya Garcia, tenor sax, Helena Kay, alto sax, Samuel Hällkvist & Shirley Tetteh, guitars, during the wild collective improvisation. This passage reflects the storm of change which followed Rosa’s quiet and dignified action.
Deeds Not Words
Dedicated to the Suffragettes, Deeds Not Words is a composition in which I take elements from an old battle hymn, Men of Harlech, which they used in one of their anthems, Shoulder to Shoulder, using a familiar tune to carry a new message.
The melody of the traditional hymn is heavily disguised at first and reimagined, using an Arabic scale and asymmetric rhythms to create something reflecting my own experiences.
I am always keen to balance the written material with space for improvisation and creative freedom. The solo section here is a four-way conversation between myself and Josie Simmons on baritone sax, Ralph Wyld on vibraphone and Samuel on guitar.
Listen out for the interplay between Sophie and Corrina on the improvised drum and percussion introduction. Somehow they create the sound of distant thunder.
Barbara Thompson is a British saxophonist, bandleader and composer, who carved out a successful career as a jazz musician in an overwhelmingly male-dominated music scene. During the 1970s and 1980s, she performed all across Europe, sometimes in arena-sized venues, with her pioneering fusion ensemble, Paraphernalia. Barbara’s musical legacy speaks for itself, but the inspiration for this last movement is my admiration for her twenty-year battle with Parkinson’s Disease.
As a composition, Barbara reflects my growing interest in minimalism and is a joyful and optimistic conclusion to the suite. It actually concludes with a mighty chord of C major!
Featured soloists are Shirley Tetteh on guitar and multiple Helena Kays, during a dreamy alto sax interlude. Also, listen out for an uplifting interjection from the bass clarinet of George Crowley during the coda.