Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Vagif Mustafa-Zadeh: Aspiration, 1978

Continuing on the topic of foreign influences in jazz music, here's Aspiration by Vagif Mustafa-Zadeh, the great pianist from Azerbaijan. The album consists of straight ahead jazz songs by a trio, adaptations of Azerbaijani folk songs featuring singing by Elza, Vagif's wife, and a very interesting title track that fuses jazz with the mugamat, or scales, common to Azerbaijani music and other Middle Eastern musical traditions. Mustafa-Zadeh plays the song in the tempered tuning standard to Western music rather than the uneven tuning of the mugam, but to me, this song nonetheless feels deeply rooted in another musical idiom. Hear an example of an Azerbaijani mugam here, played on a lute instrument called the tar by Bahram Mansurov: Clearly, with this song and other work in the same vein, Mustafa-Zadeh created a modernized hybrid music out of jazz and his country's musical tradition, not to mention causing a stir among the Soviets for playing American jazz in the early days of his career.

What I really want to talk about today is how unlike musicians from other countries whose musical backgrounds were gladly accepted into the cannon of American jazz, musicians from other parts of the world have had to force jazz to adapt to their regional music. That is not to say that some musicians, like Ahmed Abdul-Malik, have not expressed an interest in Middle Eastern and North African musics, and Joe Harriott's Indo Jazz Fusion work with John Mayer also paved the way for many hybrid musics to come. What's more, many musicians from Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian backgrounds are highly regarded in jazz today. But because the musics from these places tends to lack an obvious connection to the diasporic musics of Black Africa, they have not been received as readily as Brazilian or Cuban music by most American jazz musicians. Jazz is an incredibly international music, and a lot of work has been done individually and collectively by jazz musicians to bring a variety of influences into the music. In some instances, like the Brazilian case, whole movements have occurred in which Americans and musicians from abroad have worked together and separately to develop these hybridizations. Both musicians and records played the role of jazz ambassadors. What fascinates me about music like Mustafa-Zadeh's is that people in his position have to work very much on their own compared to jazz musicians playing sambas and other musics of the Black diaspora well established within the jazz cannon.

George Lipsitz has said that the very project of establishing a conventional jazz cannon, a project undertaken by people like Wynton Marsalis, has forced the exclusion of many musicians from what is conventionally considered jazz even though those musicians see their music as a contribution to jazz. I think that Mustafa-Zadeh and others like him have had to cut out a place for themselves in the jazz world for another reason. While it might not have helped that elite circles in jazz lacked interest in their music and even saw it as less pure than other jazz, they were also largely off the radar of most jazz musicians in general, even those who discontent with the Marsalis model of jazz. Some musicians simply come from marginal corners of the jazz world, and like I say, because they have a fewer predecessors to look to in fusing their music with jazz, they must come up with creative ways to integrate two disparate musics into a coherent whole. Even if their songs and performances aren't always remembered as timeless classics, they are true mavericks of jazz.

Mustafah-Zadeh passed away in 1979. His daughter Aziza Mustafa Zadeh has continued along the path the he cut, singing and playing jazz-mugam hybrids on the piano. Nowadays, an increasing number of musicians have been integrating many musics historically unfamiliar to the jazz cannon into jazz contexts. I'm personally very excited to see Rudresh Mahanthappa, one of today's most widely renowned Indian-jazz hybrid artists, play at the Angel City Jazz Fest in Los Angeles this fall.

Vagif Mustafa-Zadeh: piano
Tamaz Kurashvili: bass
Vladimir Boldyrev: drums
Elza Mustafa-Zadeh: vocals

Aspiration by Easy Jams



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