Polyhymnia: the name of the ancient Greek muse dedicated to sacred poetry and dance. The nine muses have been the inspiration of artists since ancient times and can you believe it? They still continue to influence them today. The Britain-Bahraini trumpet player and composer Yazz Ahmed is among them and Polyhymnia is the album dedicated to the homonymous muse, released on October 11.
Her name doesn’t come out of nowhere, she’s already known for the previous record La Saboteuse that’s considered one of the jazz records of the decade. Nonetheless, you can find her name as the fludge-horn player in The King Of Limbs by Radiohead, in the songs Bloom and Codex. This portfolio let the trumpeter to be free to compose this suite in six movements dedicated to women with strong qualities with whom she feels a tight connection. In Ahmed’s own words, “this album is a celebration of female courage, determination, and creativity” and by my point of view, I can only confirm that’s something you don’t hear every day in the jazz scene. Without further waste of time and words, let’s see what makes Polyhymnia an outstanding work.
- Lahan al-Mansour
- Ruby Bridges
- One Girl Among Many
- Deeds Not Words
Now, what’s the thing that makes peculiar the sound of miss Ahmed? If one thing is sure, that is the massive recurrence of oriental-flavor scales. Lahan al-Mansour begins with a hypnotic melodic line born from the sixth mode of the harmonic minor scale. A background made out of noise crashes and atmospheric low volume notes leads to a majestic theme where instruments move in unison: bass, trumpet, horns march together towards an oasis of Fender Rhodes stabs. The piece continues for a while just like every player is held behind, some shy attempt in turn but nothing that bursts into a leading part. This helps a slow build-up where the drums hit hard but behind in the mix, so there’s motion forward but at the same time, the rest of the arrangement can breathe. The reach of the climax culminates in the reprise of the initial theme.
Following the premises about female courage, it’s not casual that the title Ruby Bridges evokes the figure of a notorious American civil rights activist. And maybe the shuffle blues style of the intro confirms the guess because of the origins of the activist (Mississippi). In this tune, west and east meet each other thanks to the exotic harmonic matter and the big band style. As the classic jazz, the main corpus of the song is occupied by the horns alternating in soloing while bass and drums provide the sonic ground and the piano gives the harmonic map. The piano also enters into the solo and the horns keep silent to leave it space. At the end the shuffle returns, followed by the majestic horn section that closes the piece.
The solo piano in the first minute of One Girl Among Many is the key to the gates of a pink sky. I’ve used the word pink for a good reason: pink is the color of the dress that the Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousazfai wore during the famous speech at the UN Youth Takeover on July 12, 2013: “So here I stand…one girl among many”. Another example of courage, this time by a girl who’s been attacked by the Taliban in Pakistan. Her words are brought to life by a choir which spoken-word reports “Today it is an honor for me to be speaking again after a long time…so here I stand, so here I stand, one girl among many…the terrorists thought that they would change my aims and my ambitions…weakness, fear and hopelessness died…strength, power, and courage was born. They are afraid of women, the power of the voice of women frightens them…we call upon our sisters around the world to be brave”. The power of the third track is in both the powerful lyrics and the respect that the instruments keep along with the spoken-word while building powerful hooks. The powerful piano at the beginning is balanced by the tender section of the last minutes.
The sensual double bass of 2857 sets the ground all along the track where all the other musicians plant their seeds. Even during the trumpet solo it still continues to workout sick slides from the earth itself, so low but extremely fundamental. This happens until the prog-like special, a section where the instruments almost play in unison intricate patterns before unleashing the chaos in a purely free-jazz form. The silence that follows the chaos paves the way for another prog-y part where electronic is invited to the party to add another layer to the psychedelic motif.
Deeds Not Words is a motto usually linked to the women’s fight for equal rights. Just like the historical movement that took place from the suffragettes, the song begins with silence to build up in a slow but constant way until the coming of the theme: as the first song, this one is an arch-type melody that elevates and then returns down to the origin, using the same mode. Then it takes the form of a long improvisation that switches modes until returning to the theme but reinforced by a marching arrangement.
The last tune is called Barbara and considering the previous topics it could be referred to Barbara Phillips, a social justice activist. The song switches from the beginning to the end from “happy” chord progression to confusing and almost battling parts, like they simulate battles and the consequent relief at the end of the fight, the battle of brave women and the happiness after the achieved goals. It’s the only song that gives the main role to electric guitar, maybe because it’s quieter than the huge horn section and lets the music breath. In the finale, the horns come back in a powerful way, prog like 2857 and then culminating in an elegant fade-out.
If I trace a path from this record, I see the footprints of classic jazz in the structures of the songs but an extremely modern approach regarding the topics, every track tells a story about the brave women that influenced Yazz Ahmed’s heart, while she put her personal touch with the exotic and peculiar tone of oriental scales and modes. One of the best jazz works of recent years and for sure the most original of 2019.
Written for you by Music Pills
Previous releases by powerful women:
Tenesha The Wordsmith and her Peacocks and Other Savage Beasts
Neneh Cherry and her Broken Politics:
About Yazz Ahmed and her Polyhymnia:
Yazz Ahmed’s label and album cover illustrator:
About Music Pills: