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  • Writer's pictureJoel Dwek

AZERBAIJAN: Dance of Fire - Aziza Mustafa Zadeh

Updated: Apr 10, 2023

Taking the mantle from her father, the Azerbaijani vocalist and pianist uses her immense talents to put her own mark on the unique genre of jazz mugham

Like many of the musicians we have reviewed on this site, the Azerbaijani singer and jazz pianist Aziza Mustafa Zadeh was born into a musical family. Her mother, Elza Mustafa Zadeh was an accomplished singer who hailed from Georgia, and her father Vagif Mustafa Zadeh was a renowned jazz pianist, whose style of musical fusion which combined American jazz with Azerbaijani traditional music called mugham (eventually inventively named jazz mugham) gained him respect and admiration not only in the USSR, but in the USA as well, eventually sharing the stage with legends such as B.B. King, and even the great jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie lauded his playing. However, his career was cut tragically short, as he died of a heart attack just after a concert in Tashkent at the age of 39. Most of this information can be found on Aziza Mustafa Zadeh’s website, under a section called Vagif. It is clear that her father’s death at such a young age still has a profound impact on her work. There is even a rather beautiful song dedicated to him on this album called Father, which fittingly only features her piano playing as a lead instrument. Throughout her career, Mustafa Zadeh has continued his legacy by bringing jazz mugham to the West, introducing a new generation to the musical style pioneered by her father, while also changing it and updating it in her own image. Her third album, Dance of Fire, released in 1995 and recorded in the USA, is a wonderful example of her jazz mugham style, as well as her own considerable talents as a singer and pianist.

“Mustafa Zadeh’s modernised interpretation of mugham is more than a worthy introduction to this intricate genre of music, whilst also making it more accessible to someone like me who is completely new to the genre by using the trappings of jazz.”

But what, you might be thinking, is mugham music? I’m glad you asked. In a simplified explanation, mugham is a highly complex form of music that mixes classical Azerbaijani poetry with improvised musical modes (I think, anyway - if any Azeri music experts wish to correct me, please do so!), and as such one can see how it could be ripe for a combination with jazz, another famously improvisational musical medium. What follows on Dance of Fire is a collection of songs that sound both Middle-Eastern and Western, with some songs moody and atmospheric like Sheherezadeh, and others are more upbeat and chaotic like Carnival. The opening track, Boomerang, is a good example of this, with the piano seemingly flitting between Eastern and Western scales, while on Bana Bana Gel, Mustafa Zadeh’s voice climbs and descends like an opera singer, invoking Central Asian sounds and vocal scales while she does it. Though the album has many purely instrumental tracks, Mustafa Zadeh’s voice is a real high point whenever it appears, as it has a beautiful sound and a real range, and as she is performing mugham-style vocalisations, it feels fresh and new. The album’s feel of confluence between Azerbaijani folk traditions and jazz is felt in the line-up of musicians themselves. Appearing on the album are the saxophonist Bill Evans, guitarist Al Di Meola, and bassist Stanley Clarke, all of whom are well-known figures in the jazz scene. Thus, it feels authentic on both fronts, as the jazz and the mugham are expertly incorporated by excellent musicians, and I would check out the title track as a great example of Mustafa Zadeh’s piano playing, Di Meola’s guitar stylings, as well as Clarke’s funky bass, while shadow has a lovely saxophone part from Evans.

Mustafa Zadeh’s abilities as a jazz musician are clearly considerable, and the album is a fascinating look into the world of fusion and crossover between Azerbaijan and American jazz. Having known basically nothing about mugham music before this record, I’m glad I know about it and I am excited to listen to what the original thing sounds like. That said, Mustafa Zadeh’s modernised interpretation of mugham is more than a worthy introduction to this intricate genre of music, whilst also making it more accessible to someone like me who is completely new to the genre by using the trappings of jazz. If I had to criticise one aspect, I would say that I am not left completely overawed by the talent on display and nor am I left humming any tunes, though it remains enjoyable throughout. Where it succeeds fully, however, is in performing jazz mugham fusion in an authentic and accessible way.


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