Polyhymnia is the third full-length from British-Bahraini trumpeter, composer, and bandleader Yazz Ahmed. Her remarkable meld of post-bop jazz, Arabic folk traditions, and electronic sound design has brought her to a prominent and influential place on London's vibrant jazz scene. Like 2017's La Saboteuse, the album is adorned with a stunning six-panel sleeve design by Sophie Bass. The music here is an extended suite-like work commissioned by Tomorrow's Warriors in 2015. It was performed by members of the Nu Civilisation Orchestra in a concert at the Women of the World Festival on International Women's Day. The album is titled for the name of its inspiration: ancient Greece's muse of poetry, music, and dance. Each of the work's six compositions is inspired (and often named for) women of historical and cultural import: film director Haifaa Al-Mansour, civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks, activist Ruby Bridges, saxophonist and bandleader Barbara Thompson, female education advocate Malala Yousafza, and, of course, the suffragettes of the early 20th century. This music conveys an extended message of empowerment that is not without struggle. It is performed by a large ensemble of more than 30 musicians and singers playing in varying groups; they include members of Ahmed's band, Hafla, and favorite players on the London scene.
The recorded version of Polyhymnia has been expanded considerably from its live version. Ahmed added elements such as her newly designed quarter-tone flugelhorn that expands the possibilities of the Western scale toward the "blue notes" of Arabic modal music. All of these pieces are extended; none is shorter than eight-and-a-half minutes. Opener "Lahan al-Mansour" (Melody of Al-Mansour) is dedicated to Saudi Arabia's first female film director. It has a minor modal intro played in layers of overdubbed flugelhorn framed by hand percussion, elliptical Rhodes piano, guitars, bass, drums, violin, and swirling saxophones. Composed lines and improvisations are intertwined in Ahmed's arrangement. In "Ruby Bridges," loping post-bop framed by flugelhorn and guitar meet a funky, pulsing bass line, swinging drums, and expansive, polytonal reeds and brass. "2857" (for Rosa Parks) is introduced by a bluesy Middle Eastern bass line and drum kit. Ahmed leads the horn section in a tune where gospel, folk, classical, and jazz intersect. Closer "Barbara" (for Barbara Thompson) juxtaposes contrapuntal statements on bass clarinet, multi-tracked alto saxophone, flugelhorn, and electric guitar with boisterous brass, strings, vibes, drums, percussion, and Rhodes. Avant and modern jazz meet pop and classical music in sections that range from propulsive, dynamic, and knotty to blissed-out and nearly pastoral, delivered in gloriously upbeat tones, myriad textures, and brilliant colors. Evidenced by Polyhymnia's ambitious scope and flawlessly executed meld of compositions, charts, and focused improvisation, Ahmed and her work no longer belong strictly to London, but to jazz the world over.