Jasmine Myra: Let It Flow

Words by:
Photography: Derrick

With the expansive, meditative jazz of her new album Rising, Leeds-born saxophonist and bandleader Jasmine Myra is swimming against the current of the modern world

“It’s almost like a voice,” Jasmine Myra says of the saxophone, an instrument she’s been playing since she was around 14 years old. After trying her hand at the piano and the violin, which she persevered with but never really connected to, something about the saxophone just clicked. School lessons turned into private lessons, which turned into bands, which turned into a place on the jazz course at Leeds Conservatoire. But maybe all this made complete sense. Myra has always been drawn to emotive music – the kind that expresses something of the person writing or performing it. And for her, the saxophone – with “the way it feels in my hands, the sound of it” – unlocked that innermost expression.

This expressiveness can be found throughout Myra’s music. At 27, the Leeds-born saxophonist and composer has just released her second album, Rising, an uplifting, meditative record of soft saxophone melodies, crystal-clear harp and strings, and cascading swirls of rhythm. It follows 2021’s Horizons – a similarly expansive album written primarily during lockdown, an intense period for Myra that, despite its challenges, also represented something of a rebirth.

Both albums were born out of periods of development and growth, personally as well as musically. When the pandemic hit in 2020, Myra was freelance, not long out of university, juggling playing, teaching and writing. “I’d not been looking after myself that well, and I’d been ignoring a lot of the things that had been going on in my head,” she says. “Lockdown meant suddenly I had nothing to think about, but all this space to think. On top of that, I was having an identity crisis because my music had stopped and all my self-worth was tied into it.”


“It was really tough,” she continues, “but also really important. It was a crazy opportunity to have all this time and space to unpack everything and get to know myself. Writing the album became this escape. It was a cathartic experience. By the end of  it, I just felt this massive weight had been lifted.”

The sense of transcendence and relief, rather than the raw, rough messiness of working it all out, is what comes through in Myra’s music. Rising builds on Horizons’ foundations, musically and spiritually. “I felt I’d got through it all, but I wanted to keep working on my self-esteem, try to be more confident and love myself more. It’s such a long process,” Myra says. She hopes that listeners will feel “positive and uplifted”, and “relieved of stress”. It’s enormously effective – the kind of album that manages to take the edges off our near-constant snafu existence.

As well as being an emotional excavation, Myra’s work so far has represented a settling into her own creativity. She grew up on a mixed musical diet: reggae and jazz from her dad, Take That from her mum, and pop with her friends. Now, almost ten years after she started writing her own music, her work is described by critics as “spiritual jazz” – a term that is definitely retrospective for Myra, but which began to resonate after releasing Horizons. “I’m quite a spiritual person, but at the time I hadn’t made that connection – until it all came together,” says Myra. “The album felt really connected to me.”

Jazz, of course, is a hugely broad genre – and it hasn’t always felt like Myra’s natural home. “At school, I liked playing jazz, but then when I’d listen to it I’d think, yeah this is fine, but not my thing,” she says. Then she discovered Grover Washington’s Winelight – an album of chilled funky sax playing released in 1980. When you listen to it, you can hear its influence on Myra’s work even now. Her sound is worlds apart from other ‘new wave’ jazz artists like Ezra Collective, The Comet Is Coming or Kamasi Washington, who are rhythmic and punchy. Instead, she rests alongside the likes of the Belgian-Caribbean composer Nala Sinephro or even the more classical end of Bonobo – understated and transcendent. Her songs often build on short phrases repeated over and over, like the harp motifs on Rising’s title track and on Knowingness, which form the foundations for gradual expansion from Myra’s saxophone and the rest of the band.


“You have to get stuff wrong. If I’d tried to sit down and work out where I wanted my music to get to, if I had it all planned out and decided before starting, I would never get there”


Winelight is a classic – but still a far cry from the canonical jazz education that young instrumentalists are usually fed. “Even when I got to uni I was still almost pretending to like some of the musicians that other people did, like John Coltrane,” says Myra. “It just went a little bit over my head at the time. Then I listened to Cannonball Adderley for the first time and I thought, this I like. It’s a bit more simple compared to all the mad bebop stuff. It just wasn’t trying to be too clever or complicated – it was really soulful.” In this vein, Myra is also drawn to electronic and contemporary-classical-adjacent music – Floating Points, Ólafur Arnalds, even Wes Anderson soundtracks. “They’re quite quirky and silly, but I love the layering of all the parts,” she says. Polyphony crops up often across Myra’s work, too – it’s like a delicate musical web, each strand as sparkling and crucial as the last. During her time at Leeds, Myra got into artists like Shabaka Hutchings and Soweto Kinch – saxophonists who combine jazz with hip-hop, soul and stylistic mashups that defy categorisation. “When I joined Leeds Conservatoire there was a lot of hip-hop jazz fusion music happening in the city, so I was in a few other collaborative bands where that was the style,” Myra says. “I was genuinely really into it but I don’t know if it ever felt like me. I was kind of just doing what felt right at the time.”

The conservatoire was supportive, inclusive and communal – less competitive than many specialist music institutions have a reputation for being. Yet it’s an almost inevitable consequence of being part of the jazz scene, which is overwhelmingly male, that Myra began to notice her gender. “It was never something that bothered me – I never felt intimidated by the boys at school,” she explains. “When I got to uni I started to be asked about it. And then one day I realised, I’m one of the only girls on the course – one of the only instrumentalists on the jazz course. I started noticing it even more when I started writing music and trying to lead the project. I was one of the only women doing that in my local area.”

This is a problem in jazz learning, despite the best intentions of most tutors and participants. “It’s the improvisation thing,” says Myra. “If you were a shy girl and didn’t want to have a go, the teacher would almost just shut you off and not encourage you to come out of your shell. The male students were given more space to have a go and get it wrong. That comes from a wider issue, where young boys are encouraged to do that more in life in general, and are encouraged to make more mistakes. So when they’re learning an instrument or going off to uni, they already have a different mindset where they’re not as afraid to try.”

“Quite often they have that base level of confidence,” she explains. “That’s why when women enter this space, first of all they’re terrified of fucking up, and second, they’re already on the back foot because they’re intimidated, and there are fewer people who look like them. I’ve noticed that particularly at jam sessions – even though they’re super inclusive and nobody is intentionally doing anything. My male musician friends are all super emotionally intelligent, super feminist, super encouraging, but it’s such subtle and abstract things [that are] happening that it’s kind of difficult even to explain to them.”





Being prepared to make mistakes and learn through trial and error has proved to be a crucial part of the composition process for Myra. “I definitely didn’t know how to write an album, and I didn’t know what I wanted it to be about,” she says of Horizons. “But it has to develop and grow, and you have to get stuff wrong. If I’d tried to sit down and work out where I wanted my music to get to, if I had it all planned out and decided before starting, I would never get there.”

All of this comes to life playing the music live on tour, where she can see people connect with it in real time. Myra is self-managed, and explains that it’s the administrative side of things she still struggles with: “I feel like I’ve screwed up a load of times and can be really hard on myself,” she says. It helps that her eight-piece band – replete with a harpist – are old friends, and have played together for years. Toting a harp and a double bass around the UK in a van doesn’t seem like so much of a chore when “it’s so easy spending this much time together”. And although it can be tempting to cut down the size of the band to save money, it wouldn’t be worth it: “it just sounded so beautiful on stage with everyone”.

Throughout our interview, Myra is grounded and relaxed – sanguine, almost. “I just wanna keep doing what I’m doing,” she says when I ask where she sees her career going. But as she leans into her identity as a composer, she sees herself writing for bigger ensembles, perhaps developing her shows to incorporate lights and visuals, creating an immersive experience for her audience: “I’d like to get to the point where we’re performing my music but it’s about the whole atmosphere – where it creates an entire world.”

Rising is out now on Gondwana Records

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