Review: Emil Afrasiyab, Paris

Neil Watson reviews Azerbaijani jazz pianist Emil Afrasiyab and offers insights into the interaction between jazz and the traditional Azerbaijan mugham

Leading Azerbaijani jazz pianist Emil Afrasiyab dazzled an audience in Paris with his dexterity and innovation on the second night of the 15th Festival Jazz à Saint-Germain-des-Prés on 29 May last.

Born in Baku in 1982, Emil is a major artist amongst the new generation of Azerbaijani jazz performers. He specialises in the synthesis of jazz with Azerbaijani mugham, both of which feature a high degree of improvisation and provide great scope for personal expression. His work is notable for its contrasts in intonation, and fluctuating harmonics and rhythms, more commonly found in classical music.

The set began with Emil’s self-penned Two Worlds. After a delicate and melodic solo introduction, Emil increased the tempo, running up and down the piano keyboard, his music incorporating the Eastern harmonies and microtones found in mugham, being carried along by the propulsive polyrhythmic drumming of Raphaël Pannier. The improvisations even included a brief nod to J.S. Bach and his Air On The G String. This was followed by a version of Azerbaijani jazz-mugham pioneer Vagif Mustafzadeh’s March, which included Alexandre Madeline on tenor saxophone. This began with Emil’s rhapsodic introduction, after which Coltrane disciple Alexandre gave an exploration of the main theme prior to its deconstruction. Emil and Raphaël then took up the challenge, daring each other on to more tangential improvisations. Emil held the transfixed audience in reverent silence following his delicate conclusion to the piece.

Emil then performed Aziza, his own composition, dedicated to Vagif Mustafazadeh’s daughter of the same name, who is renowned as a jazz singer/pianist in her own right. The tempo of this piece gradually speeded to dizzying levels, and provided Raphaël with the chance to demonstrate his full range of percussive techniques. Emil regards all musicians in his quartet as equals, his piano remaining silent as Raphaël and bass guitarist Antoine Katz coaxed each other into new, unchartered waters of improvisation. Emil then returned, upping the tempo to an exciting and devastating level.

An encore came in the form of variations on the main theme of the 6/8 Azerbaijani traditional dance Shalakho. This saw Madeline’s saxophone take on the role of the traditional balaban flute, before entering the realms of free jazz and call-and-response dialogue with the percussion of Raphaël.

Initially, Emil’s pianistic skills were solely heard in the borders of his home country. However, this changed in 2011, when he received the Public Prize at the Montreux Jazz Festival. In 2012 he went to study performance and composition at Berklee College of Music in the US, where he now resides.

The concert, sponsored by the French office of The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS), came in the middle of a three-date French festival tour by Emil’s quartet that began on 27 May with a performance at the inaugural Sunnyside Festival in Reims. The tour will conclude on 7 September with the opening concert of the Colmar Jazz Festival. TEAS France is sponsoring Emil’s participation in all three festivals. 


Neil Watson, editor at The European Azerbaijan Society, interrupted Emil’s practice session, just prior to his appearance in Paris, to find out more about his music:

Was Azerbaijani pianist Vagif Mustafazadeh a particular influence on you?
Vagif Mustafazadeh positively impacted the development of all new music in Azerbaijan. He was an incredible person, who synthesised elements of Azerbaijani mugham with jazz. This resulted in the development of a unique form of Azerbaijani jazz music. Due to him and other incredible musicians, a new musical language was developed. One of the other great musicians of this period was Rafig Babayev, who was a polyphonic arranger, mixing jazz with mugham to develop a form of orchestral music using standard western symphonic instrumentation.

Vagif was the first person in the world to successfully export the Azerbaijani ‘voice’ in music, and it is possible that audiences did not fully understand his music in his lifetime. He is now regarded as a genius in Azerbaijan. His daughter Aziza is an incredible musician, and Lala, her sister, is a remarkable classical pianist, although she has also played jazz. In addition to composing and playing piano, Aziza also sings and has a vocal range of three or four octaves. I am proud of her because she performs all of Vagif’s compositions, yet develops new improvisations with different colours – it’s in her blood. She takes a great deal from Vagif, but her approach is uniquely different. I also respect her as a woman who plays jazz with the same virtuosity as a man. I composed an eponymously named piece, dedicated to her, which has been acclaimed by the lady herself.

Why is the synthesis of mugham with jazz so effective?
Mugham is national Azerbaijani music and, really, it is inaccurate to refer to my music as jazz-mugham. It is impossible to effectively combine mugham and jazz. It is only possible to combine elements of mugham with jazz, as it takes an entire lifetime of dedicated study to really know mugham. The modal musical system used in mugham is very complex.

Western music uses such modes as Ionian, Dorian and Lydian, but Azerbaijani modes are very different. There are microtones in Azerbaijani music that do not exist in western music. These are not found on the piano keyboard, but they can be played on stringed instruments. Similar music can be found across the Islamic world.

I am still learning about mugham, which is an incredible genre. I know a couple of scales from mugham, and integrate these with my music. In my view, it is dangerous to actually mix mugham with jazz, as the melody can be broken and ineffective in the jazz style. Not all mugham modes will work with jazz. Jazz represents freedom, but there are rules and ensemble passages that must be observed. It is important to develop a music where there are no conflicts – we do not want to break jazz or mugham.

Do the modes and microtones of mugham present a challenge for the western musicians in the quartet?

Raphaël Pannier (drums, pictured left): The ‘feeling’ of Azerbaijani music greatly differs to that in western music. When we played in Berne we had to play with a traditional percussionist. For me, it was difficult to follow their interpretation of syncopation and rhythms because these are based around unique cultural influences, rather than musical notation. This was the first time I had to perform in conjunction with another percussion instrument, and it was very challenging for me.

Antoine Katz (bass guitar): The scales in Azerbaijani music are completely different. I know that it was very difficult for our saxophonist to play the traditional melodies, and the structure was a particular challenge. There were not so many challenges for a bass player, such as myself, as the compositions remain rooted in jazz. However, the saxophone has to play these crazy melodies that were not written for this instrument, and the fingering can be very challenging.

Emil Afrasiyab: During the Baku International Jazz Festival, the members of my quartet were incredible, and the audience was crazy for them. These musicians showed the Azerbaijani audience that they could play some elements of Azerbaijani national mugham. In Aziza, my composition, Antoine’s improvisations were incredible. He started to play his bass using a traditional technique normally used on the Azerbaijani kamancha. Also, Raphaël found a way of playing the 6/8 national rhythm of Azerbaijan.

What can be done to raise the profile of Azerbaijani jazz on an international level?

Many people are interested in exploring different styles of music and instruments that are non-standard. The combination of mugham elements with jazz is an incredible sound. It is my mission to spread the word about Azerbaijani music, but still many people do not know about my country.


To see and hear Emil performing Aziza at the 2013 Baku International Jazz Festival follow this link.

Text by Neil Watson, photos by Stylin'CO.

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