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Jazz – a mellifluous Azerbaijani export

Azerbaijani jazz has a long history that dates back 90 years, almost to the earliest days of recorded jazz. The first band in the country was the Eastern Jazz Band, which featured vocals by the tenor Huseyngulu Sarabski (great-grandfather of Isfar Sarabski, a leading contemporary jazz pianist) who toured the Soviet Union.

Vagif Musfafazade with Aziza, his daughter

Vagif Musfafazade with Aziza, his daughter

In Soviet times, attitudes towards jazz across the USSR varied according to the prevailing political climate. Obviously, the music had evolved in the US, but it was a product of the underprivileged and oppressed in the American ‘melting pot’. It was therefore sometimes difficult for jazz musicians to perform openly. Despite this, Azerbaijani composers and musicians such as Niyazi and Tofiq Guliyev managed to combine chord sequences derived from jazz into symphonic music. Attitudes changed after Stalin’s death in 1953, and were further relaxed when Leonid Brezhnev – a lifelong jazz fan – became the Soviet premiere.

Isfar Sarabski

In the 1950s jazz musicians from across the Soviet and Eastern bloc flocked to Baku, which became known as the Jazz Capital of the Soviet Union

The national music of Azerbaijan is mugham, and although its harmonic structure, metre, scales, and instrumentation differ vastly from western music, there are some commonalities with jazz, in that there are specific ensemble passages at the beginning and end of each piece, and between those there is room for improvisation around the chords and melodies. This high level of improvisation and personal interpretation made Baku very receptive to jazz music, and in the 1950s jazz musicians from across the Soviet and Eastern bloc flocked to Baku, which became known as the Jazz Capital of the Soviet Union, where such musicians as Parviz Rustambeyov (the Soviet Benny Goodman) could develop their art.

The development of postbop modal jazz in the US in the 1950s and 60s by such luminaries as Miles Davis, Bill Evans and Ahmad Jamal paved the way for a very Azerbaijani musical revolution in Azerbaijan. Taking Azerbaijani mugham as a point of departure, classically-trained pianists and composers such as Rafiq Babayev and Vagif Mustafazdeh synthesised this with modal jazz to create a form of ethnojazz known as jazz-mugham. Often performed in the standard jazz trio format of piano, bass and drums, the work of Vagif Mustafazadeh received particular plaudits, not least for his richly ornamented approach to the piano. Often said to be ‘the Father of Azerbaijani Jazz’, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie said he had created “the music of the future” and blues guitarist BB King commented: “People call me the King of the Blues, but if I could play the piano like you do, I would call myself God.”

Aziza Musafazadeh has taken the jazz-mugham concept even further, adopting a mystical approach in her own compositions

Despite suddenly passing away at the age of 39, the influence of Vagif Mustafazadeh cannot be underestimated. Almost all jazz musicians in Azerbaijan today owe much to his legacy – the youthful Isfar Sarabski, who won the Solo Jazz Piano Prize at the 2009 Montreux Jazz Festival – regularly performs his March in his sets.

Emil Afrasiyab has undertaken his own transcription of Vagif’s Piano Concerto; and his daughter Aziza Musafazadeh has taken the jazz-mugham concept even further, adopting a mystical approach in her own compositions, often ornamented by her own khanande-influenced scat singing.

The breathtaking Shahin Novrasli often collaborates with his brothers on the national instruments of tar and kamancha to produce an effortlessly accessible of jazz, mugham and the west and east.

Another pianist, Amina Figarova, comes from rather a different background, that of freeform jazz, having made her career in the Netherlands and the US. Latterly, Elchin Shirinov – a musician from a folkloric background – has been improvising in and around folk and Azerbaijani classical themes, whilst his compositions still incorporate the microtones and eastern harmonies of mugham.

Baku hosted its first jazz festival in 1969, and now the annual Baku International Jazz Festival, organised by saxophonist Rain Sultanov, attracts some of the world’s greatest talents, including Billy Cobham, the late Joe Zawinul, Charles Lloyd and Stanley Clarke, alongside the brightest talents from Azerbaijan and the post-Soviet world. Naturally, such collaborations have had an impact on Azerbaijani jazz, and the work of Isfar Sarasbki and Elchin Shirinov, for example – is replete with funky repeated figures, whereas Salman Gambarov’s work firmly falls into the category of jazz-rock fusion. Tenor saxophonist Rain Sultanov takes a different approach, combining the fusion of Michael Brecker with classical, mugham and world music instrumentation and harmonies.

With a jazz club in central Baku, and high-calibre musicians aplenty, jazz is very much alive, well and prospering in Azerbaijan.

by Neil Watson, Chief Editor TEAS Magazine

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