Mugam also describes a specific type of musical composition and performance, which is hard to grasp with an understanding of western concepts of music most notably because mugam composition is improvisational in nature. This brings the music close to jazz. At the same time – and this is antithetical to the heart and soul of jazz – it follows exact rules. Furthermore, in the case of the suite-rhapsody-mugam the concept of improvisation is not really an accurate one, since the artistic imagination of the performers is based on a strict foundation of principles determined by the respective mode. The performance of such a mugam does not present an amorphous and spontaneous, impulsive improvisation. The songs are often based on the ancient poetry of Azerbaijan, and although love is a common topic in these poems, due to their immense complexity many of the intricacies and the spiritual and romantic allusions are lost on the untrained ear. For one, the poems do not primarily deal with worldly love but also with the mystical love for God. Yet, strictly speaking, this is still secular music/poetry, as opposed to, say, Sufism. Nevertheless, mugam composition is designed very similarly to Sufism in that it seeks to achieve ascension from a lower level of awareness to a transcendental union with God. It is a spiritual search for God.
There are over seventy mugam and derivatives – based on known Azeri modes. The operatic scores and symphonic compositions were added on later, when musical intercourse was resumed with the west. Almost all have outlived the harsh and repressive elements – including the spread of militant Christianity and erstwhile Soviet era, whose fearful adherents tried their best to suppress the mugami opuses. That the tradition of mugami – first heard of and developed between the 10th and 11th centuries B.C. – has survived until this day is a tribute to the musicians who have struggled to keep it alive. Uzbayir Hajibeyov – who incorporated mugam into operatic scores in the 1910s, Fikrat Amirov, who introduced mugam into Western symphonic form for the first time in the mid-1940s… Singers such as Babayev, and Gasimov… the tar players Guliyev and Abdullayev, kamancha player Sheik Eyvazova… Even today, their names and music reverberates through the streets and auditoriums of Azerbaijan.
But Vaghif Mustafa Zadeh was always different. Like Mingus, Coltrane, Dizzy and Miles, and now Laswell, Vaghif had a world view. He saw through the haze of painful repression that he could fuse its concepts through performances, blended with that other great dialect of liberation – jazz – and take a centuries-old tradition into the modern era. And he was persecuted mercilessly. Vaghif – it was believed – used the emotive elements of mugam to communicate secretly with the liberated world – to subvert the closed society that he lived and died in.
Vaghif had a symbiotic relationship with his wife – and especially – with his then-young daughter Aziza, who carries on the monumental task of fusing the dialect of mugam with that of contemporary jazz. The language of love, spoken with (the) sonic emotion of mugam and cast in the dialect of jazz almost unified them spiritually, even as Aziza was growing up. His almost mystic musical abilities had a deep effect on the child. Aziza, speaking to the Ms. Betty Blair (reprinted from Azerbaijan International magazine – Winter, 1996 (4.4) narrates an incident in her childhood. It forms a memorable illustration of how the sonic emotion of mugam became the well-spring of her life: “Once, my father was improvising at the piano, playing in the mugam mode known as ‘shur’, which creates a mood that evokes very deep, sad emotions. As my father was playing, I started to cry. Everyone wondered what was happening to me. Why was I crying? And then my mother realized the correlation between my feelings and the music. ‘Vaghif, please,’ she told my father, ‘Change the scale… Go to ‘rast’’, which he did. Now ‘rast’ (Another mugam) is characterized by its joyfulness and optimism. And sure enough, with tears still running down my cheeks, I started to make dance-like movements! And Mom pointed out, “Look! Look what she is doing! Change back to ‘shur’! And when he did, I started crying even louder than ever before. ‘Back to ‘rast’, Vaghif’… and I began dancing again!”
Just how deeply the genius of her father, the Azeri tradition of mugam and her own ferocious talent – and grasp of every mugam and element of jazz – have come to meld into the soul of Aziza Mustafa Zadeh, like the spell of an ancient druid in a ‘Bird-like skin, is evident from the first notes of her very first eponymous album, Aziza. This was no tentative ‘first step ahead’, but a full-blown record of an artist who had arrived and was speaking in her own ‘Aziza-idiom’, where mugami form and emotion flowed like hot metal into cascades of classic, avant-garde and Parkeriana!
In 1993, Columbia released Always , where Aziza was accompanied by then Chick Corea alumni, Dave Weckl (drums) and the irrepressible John Patitucci (bass). The album roared through Europe, dazzling listeners and wowing critics. It was awarded the ECHO prize from the German Gramaphone Association. Was the album pure breathtaking jazz? Never quite so. Aziza can never be put into a singular groove. She had already lit up the sky with her otherworldly interpretation of mugam, appropriated to the landscape of jazz! Azeri mugami harmolodics buffeted with the clash and crash of Weckl’s percussion pyro-techniques and the deeply resonant pedal-point and ostinato of Patitucci’s bass. Mugam-jazz-harmolodia was born at the slender hands of the soulful Azeri pianist.