July/August 2007

Amina Figarova: Classical Jazz

On Sept. 11, 2001, Amina Figarova was visiting friends in the United States and was alone in a Brooklyn apartment, asleep, when the planes hit the towers. She awoke and went out into the streets of a foreign country and saw people who had walked over the Brooklyn Bridge, covered in dust, and others already carrying pictures.

Later, she wrote a nine-piece song cycle about her experience called September Suite. It was released on the Munich label in 2005 and is one of the barest, purest, most moving jazz responses to the events of 9/11.

Figarova was born in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan and received what she describes as a “heavy conservatory education” in classical piano. “It was my life: practicing eight hours a day, playing concerts. It left little room for anything else.” By the time she was 24, her career as a concert pianist, based in Baku, Azerbaijan, and also in Moscow, was well underway.

In 1990 she went to the Netherlands on a concert tour and has lived there ever since. Figarova insists that political turmoil in Azerbaijan (whose break from the Soviet Union was briefly but violently challenged by the Red Army) did not drive her decision to relocate. She was offered a scholarship to Rotterdam Conservatory, where she began playing jazz and where she met and married Belgian jazz flautist Bart Platteau. She says, “Jazz was popular in Azerbaijan but my friends and teachers in the classical community discouraged me from playing it. At 16 or 17 you are more dependent on what friends think of you. But in Holland no one knew me and I thought, ‘I can try this.’ I studied with Rob van Kreeveld at Rotterdam Conservatory. He is an amazing pianist who can take Bud Powell through Bach. I began to understand how my classical experience could enrich my jazz playing.”

Figarova describes September Suite as “an ode to mourning. It is about the human experience of losing someone you love with no chance to say goodbye.” In nuanced gradations of somber color and fragile breaths of melody, her nine compositions create disciplined, austere correlatives for emotional devastation. Her arrangements derive complex layers of texture from only six instruments. Bart Platteau’s flights on flute are like attempts at spiritual escape, contrasted with Figarova’s piano notes, dark strokes of moment-by-moment awareness. (It is an example of art’s deepest mystery: that a work about unimaginable agony can be beautiful. It is only because we love that we can mourn.)

Figarova, who came late to jazz, is now an uncommonly busy jazz musician. She has performed in North and South America, the Middle East, Africa and most of the important clubs and festivals in Europe—“everywhere except Australia and Japan.” Her intense touring schedule is one reason she has not been back in the studio since September Suite. Another reason is that Job Zomer, owner of the Munich label, died last year. The label had been Figarova’s home for eight albums, but Munich, now under new management, has no plans for future jazz recordings.

Another reason is that she has not been writing new music. She says, “Every time when I am done with writing I feel I will never write again. But for me writing comes in waves, and I can feel another wave coming. I don’t have the music yet, but it’s on the way.”

In February 2007, her longest North American tour to date included stops in Chicago, San Francisco, Berkeley, Portland and Vancouver, B.C., most with sold-out houses. The last gig was Tula’s in Seattle, packed on a wet Monday night. In addition to fresh, elegantly crafted originals from her working repertoire, her sextet played six movements from September Suite. In the context of two jazz sets they stood apart. They were journeys back to a darkness that everyone in the room had shared, and the audience sat very still.

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