The British-Bahraini trumpeter, flugelhornist and composer Yazz Ahmed went clear in 2017 with La Saboteuse (Naim). The album is an otherworldly mix of jazz, electronics and Arabic folk music which carries traces of Miles Davis' In A Silent Way (Columbia, 1969) and Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1970) and Jon Hassell's Dream Theory In Malaya: Fourth World Volume 2 (E.G., 1981), all wrapped in a modern sensibility. With it, Ahmed outstripped Ibrahim Maalouf as the high priest of psychedelic Arabic jazz.
Polyhymnia is not so much otherworldly as purposefully earthbound. It is a suite inspired by six courageous and influential women: Lahan Al-Mansour, Saudi Arabia's first female film director; Ruby Bridges, who aged six was instrumental in desegregating the New Orleans school system; Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani advocate of female education who survived an assassination attempt; Rosa Parks, the US civil rights activist; the Women's Social and Political Union (aka The Suffragettes); and Barbara Thompson, the pioneering British female saxophonist and composer.
(Intermission: Thompson, incidentally, has a great sense of humour. From 1967 until his passing in 2018, she was the wife of Jon Hiseman, leader of the jazz-rock fusion band Colosseum. An interviewer once observed, "Your husband is a musician, too, isn't he?" "No, he's a drummer," said Thompson).
La Saboteuse was made by a ten-piece band, around half of whom return as part of the twenty-six-piece collective lineup heard on Polyhymnia. The personnel list reads like a who's who of London's happening woke jazz scene, of which Ahmed has been a key player since its first stirrings in 2013 (her debut album, Finding My Way Home, was released on Suntara in 2012). Among the luminaries are alto saxophonist Camilla George, keyboard player Sarah Tandy, guitarist Shirley Tetteh and tenor saxophonist Nubya Garcia. Solos, which are as striking as you would expect from such a lineup, play an important roleShirley Tetteh's in "Barbara" can bring tears to your eyesbut much of Polyhymnia's focus is on ensemble work.
Jazz, electronics and Arabic folk music remain part of Ahmed's mix, and this time out so does contemporary classical, Welsh hymn music (on "Deeds Not Words," dedicated to the Suffragettes), spoken word (on "One Girl Among Many," which recreates parts of a speech Malala Yousafzai gave to the United Nations in 2013) and New Orleans funk (on "Ruby Bridges").
In A Silent Way was described by a hostile contemporary critic as "opium music" and, in a wholly positive way, so is La Saboteuse. When it hits, you feel no pain. Polyhymnia is restorative, too, but it is also bracing, as befits its subject matter.
Lahan Al-Mansour; Ruby Bridges; One Girl Among Many; 2857; Deeds Not Words; Barbara.
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