In Greek mythology, Polyhymnia was the Muse of sacred hymns, poetry and dance. The word Muse has a distinct meaning in Greek mythology, but can also refer to a person who is the source of inspiration for a creative artist, and on her new album, British-Bahraini trumpet player, Yazz Ahmed, draws her inspiration from six important women from around the world who have inspired her for various reasons.
The opening track, Lahan Al-Mansour (Melody of Al-Mansour), is dedicated to Saudi Arabia’s first female film director, with the music an attempt to paint a picture of the vast, unchanging desert. The melody is carried by the trumpet section, with call-and-response with the main band, and there are fine solos by Yazz on trumpet and Tori Freestone on soprano sax.
Take a listen to Lahan Al-Mansour here:
You may be unfamiliar with the name, but probably not the story – Ruby Bridges was the first African-American child to enter the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans in 1960. On that day, there were violent demonstrations, and all but one of the teachers walked out in protest. The music is inspired by interviews she gave as an adult, and tries to capture a child-like melody, backed an unsettling, dissonant harmony, as good overcomes bad.
One Girl Among Many is a line from Malala Yousafzai’s address to the United Nations Youth Assembly in 2013. In listening to this powerful speech, Yazz was struck by the musical quality of her speaking voice, and tried to extract the melody from select phrases, a technique used by Steve Reich on Different Trains. This piece features a piano introduction, words by Malala, chanted by a 14-person ensemble, and a flugelhorn solo by Yazz.
2857 was the number of the bus taken by Rosa Parks in Alabama in 1955. “It’s a piece of two halves, the first expressing the quiet dignity of her action, the second, the storm of change to come,” Yazz explains. Tori Freestone provides a link between the two halves with a tenor solo, and in the quiet storm that follows, there is a solo by Yazz, electronic effects and guitar, two saxophonists, all held together by some fine piano and drumming. Powerful stuff!
Take a listen to 2857 here:
Deeds Not Words was the motto of the Women’s Social and Political Union, founded by Emmeline Pankhurst, one of the leading Suffragettes. The composition takes elements from the hymn, Men of Harlech, which was adapted by the Suffragettes and re-worded as Shoulder to Shoulder. “As with all my compositions, I am keen to balance the written material with space for improvisation,” Yazz reveals. The solo section here is a four-way conversation between trumpet, baritone, vibraphone and guitar, all played out over a shimmering Arabic melody, before the tune builds to a triumphant close, bringing us back to hymn that influenced the tune.
The final tune is Barbara, named after the pioneering British saxophonist and composer, Barbara Thompson, and was inspired by a moving BBC documentary. The music is influenced by Yazz’s growing interest in minimalism, with the simple motif gradually evolving and building, before Yazz delivers a gorgeous solo on flugelhorn.
Polyhymnia was written and conceived in 2015, when Tomorrow’s Warriors, with support form PRS Women Make Music, commissioned Yazz to write the music. It was premiered by the NU Civilisation Orchestra at the WOW! International Women’s Day in March 2015, and has gradually evolved in the four years since then, as Yazz brought in additional musicians and contributors – too numerous to mention here!
“If I were starting it today, I’m pretty sure there would be a piece dedicated to that incredible young woman, Greta Thunberg,” Yazz admits. Polyhymnia shows how far we’ve come, from the Suffragettes and the civil rights movement in the United States, but also how far we’ve got to go. As always, there’s a fierce intelligence at work in Yazz Ahmed’s compositions, and she has surrounded herself with a stellar cast of musicians who help to bring her powerful visions to life.
Like the excellent La Saboteuse (2017), the album features delightful artwork from Sophie Bass. There's a long history of 'political' works in jazz, and Polyhymnia is up there with the very best of them. This truly inspirational album is out now on the American label, Ropeadope Records, and comes highly recommended.