Yazz Ahmed – La Saboteuse

From a Western perspective, jazz frequently feels most appropriate in an urban environment. Whether envisioning Miles Davis‘s ensemble sextet playing Kind of Blue from a night club or an abstract artist listening to Ornette Coleman‘s Free Jazz in their studio apartment, many of the genre’s greatest works thrive in the mindset of a city’s epicenter of culture, activity and swagger. But more so than almost any other genre, jazz has continuously refused to remain inside a tiny, compartmentalized definition. Jazz has been and always will be an approach to sound defined solely by the artist and their own musical and spacial context. Thus, as we venture across the pond and even into American jazz artists’ more worldly albums, a multitude of jazz subgenres become more prevalent, such as third stream’s blend of European classical with jazz and world fusion bringing jazz to exotic landscapes.

World fusion’s possibilities are truly endless; this year alone, clarinetist/composer Wacław Zimpel led his ensemble Saagara through a blend of jazz and Indian classical music on 2,  while Nguyên Lê and Ngo Hong Quang spliced Vietnamese folk music and jazz guitar on Hà Nội Duo. Not only does Yazz Ahmed‘s phenomenal La Saboteuse add to 2017’s exceptional world fusion offerings, her sophomore album is easily one of the most significant releases in modern Arabic jazz. The London-based composer, trumpeter and flugelhorn player leads an eclectic nine-member ensemble through psychedelic chamber pieces that effortlessly continue in the legacy of Arabic jazz greats like Ahmed Abdul-Malik, Rabih Abou-Khalil and Anouar Brahem.

La Saboteuse provides ample justification for Ahmed’s impressive résumé. She’s played alongside a multitude of musicians from various genres, ranging from major international players in the modern jazz scene to art rock bands like These New Puritans and Radiohead (yes, that Radiohead). And after Ahmed’s first notes on album opener “Inhale,” it becomes abundantly clear why such a wide field of artists wants to share a stage with her. Her style incorporates the tone and energy of David Douglas with Davis’ wispy modality and patient unraveling of each note. Her choice of ensemble instruments fleshes out the album’s Middle Eastern sound and shades each track with variety and finesses, particularly with Corrina Silvester’s endless percussion arsenal and the rich tonality of Lewis Wright‘s vibraphone.

Along with the aforementioned influences, “Jamil Jamal” first exhibits the strong cues Ahmed and company take from Masada and John Zorn‘s chamber works, albeit with a more psychedelic, mystic vibe. To revisit the transportive analogy of the opening paragraph, each of the works on La Saboteuse paints a lush desert portrait on the listener’s mental canvas, complete with hazy mirages and mystic bazaars. Ahmed regularly emphasizes these mirage moments throughout the record. On “The Space Between the Fish and the Moon,” she glitches her trumpet with a Kaoss Pad amid an unsettling, turbid air, weaving these effects throughout the remainder of the track. If Flying Lotus sampled Davis’ Sketches of Spain and John Coltrane‘s Olé for a bonus track on You’re Dead, it’d sound a lot like how Ahmed bends brass to her will and directs her ensemble through arid compositions.

The way Ahmed structures the album is a subtle tactic that emboldens each composition’s impact. Interspersed throughout the tracklisting are brief interludes featuring extended trumpet lines that hang in the atmosphere. Each clip works as a perfect segue between the cluster of tracks it lies between, eradicating any chance of empty space or filler that might hinder the record’s cohesion and helping a natural flow through carefully evolving moods. Case in point, “Inspiration Expiration” seamlessly transitions the brash, big band feel of “Al Emadi” into the Masada-driven Middle Eastern scales of “The Lost Pearl.” And as the rhythmic-focused “Beleille” fades out, “Whirling” ushers in the glistening, gorgeous oasis of “Organ External,” an immaculate closer that sounds like Kamasi Washington composed a eulogy piece for Zimpel. And after all this, “Exhale” acts as the final, brief reflection of the musical bliss that just unfolded.

In a year already replete with excellent jazz albums, La Saboteuse easily jumps to the top of the pack as the must-listen jazz record of 2017. It comes as a genuine shock to learn this is only Ahmed’s sophomore album; one can only fantasize about what her future projects will sound like if she’s already churning out masterpieces in the early stages of her career. If La Saboteuse receives the response it deserves, Ahmed will be hailed as a modern jazz visionary and one of the genre’s most sought after talents.

La Saboteuse is available now and can be purchased via the Bandcamp embed above.

"In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there's something stronger - something better - pushing right back." - Albert Camus