Ben chats to Leeds saxophonist, composer and bandleader Jasmine Myra, who released her debut album 'Horizons' on Manchester label Gondwana Records last week. Blending together jazz, electronica, and spiritual tones, Myra's debut is rich with beautiful solos and has catapulted her into the limelight of the UK jazz scene.
Her album has received huge support from the likes of Gilles Peterson at Worldwide FM, leading to a Brownswood Basement live session too. Myra chats about the new album, her writing process, female representation in the jazz scene, and the impact of Leeds and its people on her career.
Upon hearing the uplifting and serene songs throughout the album 'Horizons', it's hard to imagine a lot of it was written during the midst of our lockdowns during the pandemic. Initially Myra struggled mentally, deprived of shows and the connections of making music with her band and friends. It didn't stop her from writing though, more encouraging her to pursue the sound she wanted to create.
"Writing has always been something that I enjoy, so motivating myself to do it during lockdown wasn’t difficult, despite everything. It actually helped a lot by acting as a sort of escape from everything that was troubling me."
The euphoria in the beautiful climax of 'Awakening' highlights the essence of what this album is, an emotive piece of work that glistens into the spiritual stratosphere of jazz. The song's message mirrors moving out of the lockdowns in some ways, representing our problems lifting.
"Awakening is one of the first songs I wrote for the album and it’s about that moment of realisation when you finally feel strong enough to overcome a problem and are no longer gripped by it. For me, it was my mental health. And the whole album resonates the message you can overcome anything you put your mind to with positivity."
The sound of the record feels very akin to Gondwana Records' founder Matthew Halsall's own compositions, with both drawing on calming soundscapes to illuminate how adept they are with their instruments. On this record, Myra explores playing with the flute more and has worked with a string quartet and harpist to develop her compositions.
'Awakening' utilises these extra instruments superbly. The strings really push the band's power in matching Myra's solo after a spellbinding introduction from Alice Roberts on the harp, Jasper Green on piano and Ben Haskins on the guitar. Myra details how it's been in challenging herself to write in new ways.
"It’s been amazing. I’ve loved working with everyone on it and I’ve learned so much throughout the process. It’s definitely been challenging at times, but I’m so grateful for the whole experience and am incredibly proud of the outcome."
"‘Horizons’ is the first time I’ve written a full album and had to write cohesively. My entire approach to this album was very different to the ‘Bring to Light’ EP from 2019."
"That EP was an important part of my development at the time and self-releasing it was a massive learning curve for me, however, it was really just a collection of existing tunes that I’d put together."
"On the album, 'Morningtide' is one of the tracks I’m most proud of because of the composition and arrangement. Anna Chandler’s playing on it is incredible, and I wrote the song as a nod to Kenny Wheeler and his album ‘Music for Large and Small Ensembles’ which was hugely inspiring for me."
'Morningtide' blends Myra's alto and Chandler's soprano sax sensationally as Sam Quintana's bass and Roberts' harp create very soft textures beneath their melody. Sections led by the Chandler, Roberts and Myra build into an ethereal energy, and this structure remains a constant throughout in ensuring the tranquilising effect of the record sustains.
'1000 Miles' is one of the best on the album for demonstrating this too. Movements ranging from the irresistibly peaceful to loops of enchanting patterns amplify the spiritual motions, making the song transcend into a magnificently divine piece of music.
Explaining her influences on the album, Myra talks about the effect the city of Leeds and its people have had on her music.
"I grew up in Leeds and was encouraged to play music from a young age. I have always been naturally creative and interested in learning music, however it wasn’t until I got to high school and started learning sax that I knew I wanted a career in it."
"I joined all of the after-school bands that I could, and a local youth band called LYRJO. I was enjoying playing and performing so much that there was never a doubt in my mind that I would pursue a career in music."
"There is a strong sense of community and support for one another which I find inspiring in the music scene here. I can’t put into words how grateful I am for certain people who have helped my career. DJ Lubi Jovanovic has supported me over the years, and he does so much for the Leeds scene."
"Rob Mitchell was my tutor throughout college and has always encouraged me to believe in myself. I learned a lot from playing in his jazz hip-hop band Abstract Orchestra. Dave Walker owns a shop called 'All Brass and Woodwind’ where I worked while I was doing my BTEC at Leeds Conservatoire."
"He has always been there for me and I’m so thankful for his generosity and support, especially encouraging me to apply for the Jazz North Introduces scheme supporting emerging artists in the North."
Halsall also notes why it's exciting for his label to support another artist based in the north of England too.
"I was really impressed with her skills as a composer and bandleader, that she is open and intelligent enough to bring all those influences together, to make something fresh and original. London is often seen as the place to be, but cities like Manchester and Leeds are full of creative musicians too, and that sense of local community is at the heart of our values as a label, so we are delighted to work with a young artist from the North of England."
The singles released prior to the album highlight the freshness Halsall talks about. 'New Beginnings' has a real sensual mood to it as it softly creates this magical feeling, with both Myra's sax and Green's piano solos gushing so gracefully. 'Prologue' is equally charming, with the melody's simplicity allowing George Hall and Greg Burns on drums and percussion to elevate the sound with shimmering cymbals and tingling effects.
Second single, the title track 'Horizons', really encapsulates sounds that range from Mammal Hands, Portico Quartet and Ólafur Arnalds to more experimental artists like Hania Rani and Bonobo. The depth of the song has a nostalgia to it, with Haksins' guitar noodling gently to Myra's flute as Gavin Barras' bass offers a pulse that the drums and keys lock into at the end.
Myra states"my aim was to start writing music that made people feel happy and uplifted" and this joyous and celebratory feel can be heard in 'Words Left Unspoken', despite it relating to being unable to see her grandmother before her passing due to Covid restrictions. It's here you feel like the song is reminiscent of a gentle GoGo Penguin composition, with the strings, harp and keys providing meditative and ambient textures.
With Halsall producing the album and Portico Quartet’s Greg Freeman mixing it, Myra values learning from such experienced musicians.
"It’s been incredible. They make me feel supported and respected as an artist. I’ve learned so much from working with Matthew and Greg and can’t thank them enough for guiding me through the process and bringing warmth to each track."
"I also really loved working with friends I studied with in Leeds on this album. I feel very lucky that I get to have such good friends in my band, and that they all work so hard and are enthusiastic about my music. They are all very talented and their playing on the album is what makes it."
Myra also notes her role in inspiring fellow young, female musicians and female-led bands in Leeds and beyond.
"I think it’s very important for young female musicians to see women represented in jazz and in the music industry in general because it will empower them. It can be very intimidating for a woman to enter into a male-dominated industry and that’s why that representation is so important."
Her rise in the industry as a female bandleader has not gone unnoticed either. With support ranging from Bandcamp Weekly, Jazz FM and BBC Radio 2, 3 and 6, she has also had a load of support from Gilles Peterson. With airtime on Worldwide FM as well as 'Horizons' being a part of the Worldwide FM Test Press Club, she managed to perform her own Brownswood Basement session too.
"I’m loving every minute of it and am overjoyed by how well the album's been received so far. It definitely feels very validating having worked on it for so long and to get such good feedback now that it’s out there. Playing live and seeing the audience connect with my music and have a positive experience brings me so much joy.”
"My most recent Leeds show is definitely a highlight too. It was the first time that we’d performed with the full band which was an emotional moment for me. Aside from the Brownswood Basement session, I’m very excited to perform my first London show on 13th August. It’s been an aspiration of mine to gig with this band in London so I’m really looking forward to that!"
'Horizons' is such a strong, soulful and honest debut album and feels very much at home on the Gondwana label. At the same time, Myra is also bringing a much-needed focus onto the abundance of talent in the Leeds scene, backing up a recent big release from fellow Leeds friends TC & The Groove Family on Bristol's Worm Discs. With the backing of such an esteemed label, it feels imminent Myra will become a prominent voice in the UK jazz scene in time to come.
Buy 'Horizons' here:
Keep up to date with Jasmine Myra here:
Watch Jasmine Myra play live at:
Jasmine Myra's band are:
Flute/Alto Saxophone - Jasmine Myra
Guitar - Ben Haskins
Keyboard - Jasper Green
Double Bass - Gavin Barras
Drum Kit - George Hall
Percussion - Greg Burns
Violin - Isabella Baker
Violin - Lisa Natsuno
Viola - Elizabeth Lister
Cello - Lizzie Elliot
Harp - Alice Roberts
Soprano Saxophone - Anna Chandler
Double Bass - Sam Quintana