Sunday, February 8, 2009

Aziza Mustafa Zadeh: Jazz and Tiramisu

Have you ever happened across a performer at a quick glance and been captivated instantly with his or her musical art? Such occurred with me about fifteen years ago, when I heard jazz artist Aziza Mustafa Zadeh, an Azerbaijani singer and pianist, for the first time on a Deutsche Welle cable program. Luckily that show was repeated, and I was able to catch her name. I've enthusiastically followed her music and career ever since.

Daughter of Vagif Mustafa Zadeh, a Soviet-era jazz musician who performed at personal hazard behind the Iron Curtain, Aziza also learned from her mother Eliza, an opera singer. Her etherial tonalities are an exotic blend (to the Western ear) of "mugam" scales, evoking a vaguely Arabic or Islamic sensibility, and American jazz riffs and chord progressions. Her tranquil instrumentals featuring this "double jazz", in her father's parlance, are entrancing mood pieces that could serve as the national soundtrack for her homeland, while her faster compositions display her technical virtuosity.

Aziza's incredible, classically trained vocals incorporate influences from mugam to opera to scat-singing jazz improvisation. It is the range and breadth of her vocal talents -- a haunting melody in one phrase, percussive clicks in another, leading to an operatic, high note climax -- that captivate the listener and distinguish her music from garden-variety Eurojazz.

Her most accessible work for fans of American jazz standards is Jazziza, an album of recognizable jazz songs arranged with her own ethnic stylings, sensibility, and wit. Her humorous take on Dave Brubeck's classic, "Take Five", presents her full-throated, operatic voice at a feverish pace, mixing in syncopated scat-singing, articulate "pips" at the top of her range, and, in the album version, tight harmonies (with herself!) and musical puns -- such as the surprise drop-in of the opening tones to Beethoven's Fifth Symphony at a propitious moment.

Based in Germany, Aziza performs mainly in European cities. My beloved spousal unit and I, along with good friends living in Europe, had the high privilege of seeing her concert nearly ten years ago, in Schwetzingen Castle near Heidelberg. Shy in her stage conversation with the audience, her concert presented the full measure of her musical talents. The encore, she explained, was a bit of "dessert"; she altered the lyrics of her very fast, very brief scat song called "Moment" to include the musical refrain, "Tiramisu, tiramisu, tiramisu!"

It's my fervent hope that aficionados of world music and jazz on this side of the Atlantic will have the same opportunity to see her perform live, either solo or perhaps as the featured guest of a symphony orchestra. It will change your concept of what is possible musically. To North American musical directors and impresarios: may I respectfully recommend that you offer Aziza Mustafa Zadeh some tiramisu at the earliest opportunity.


  1. I heard her in my then hometown Hamburg in the mid 1990s. She was still mainly considered a pianist, and critics frowned upon her vocal adventures. Her last encore was "Take Five" (announced: "not by me"). All the same, I wrote in my diary after the concert: "Probably the most musical human being I have ever encountered" (and I had met György Ligeti before). It is very strange to see that in the U.S. she is almost unknown although US-Azerbaidjan relationships are not that bad.

  2. Thank you for your comment. As you say, it's remarkable that Aziza is not better known on this side of the Atlantic. Her first album was released in the US, but not the others (as far as I know). That usually means it didn't sell well here; I don't think it's a matter of politics. I'[ve purchased a few second-hand copies on eBay and given them to friends and family over the years. Today, of course, it's much easier to share a new musical interest with friends via the Internet.



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