Amina Figarova & Bart Platteau: The Family That Plays Together

Russ Davis profiles couple who perform and record together

Amina Figarova at CareFusion Newport Jazz Festival
Bart Platteau and Amina Figarova
Bart Platteau, Russ Davis and Amina Figarova

1 of 3   Next

On my way to hear pianist Amina Figarova and her sextet at the club Dizzy’s at the Jazz @ Lincoln Center Complex, and please, someone tell me of a more beautiful and impressive site to hear jazz, an old phrase popped into my head that we’ve probably all heard at some time in our lives. That old adage is “The family that plays together, stays together.” I am not going to take the time to Google the person who coined that phrase or when it was created but I’ve known it all my life and it was stuck in my head as I made my way to Dizzy’s to hear Amina and her wonderful band that includes, on flute, her husband Bart Platteau.

Jazz history is full of instances of husband-wife partnerships like Marian McPartland who came to America to be with husband Jimmy, Shirley Scott on organ and husband Stanley Turrentine on sax, and others. Then there’s the current group of musical-marital partnerships like Eliane Elias and bassist Marc Johnson and the great Randy Brecker and his talented saxophone-playing wife Ada Rovatti who share the stage and studio in the Brecker Brothers Band Reunion. There are undoubtedly others but none more brilliant and creative than Amina and Bart. The work they have created together in a past that borders on two decades now is some of the finest in jazz today. That’s what I set out to hear on this frozen night in New York that fell, as Amina reminded the audience during the performance, between snowstorms during this bitter winter. I also set out to get the inside scoop on how this “Jazz Power Couple” got together and how they work so effectively.

How do two people, musicians or otherwise, meet and start a collaboration/romance when one is from Azerbaijan and the other from Belgium? Well, all one has to do is go to Rotterdam in The Netherlands to study jazz. That’s where Amina was working on a student project and needed a trumpet player. She was all ready to record but the trumpeter never showed up. She called someone for suggestions and was referred to a certain musician who could so the job but she was told he not only didn’t play trumpet but he played a weird instrument, an EWI (Electronic Wind Instrument). On top of that he was a guy who was always busy and might not be readily available. Amina took the number and tried calling over and over, finally catching him when he was home for only about an hour break between his travels and he agreed to do the session. That guy was Bart Platteau and, as Amina tells it, he came to do the project and never left.

Bart Platteau is a man of few words but though he speaks softly, he carries a powerful stick, his flute, which he plays exclusively on Amina’s music. I asked if he’d care to play the EWI again (it’s an instrument I especially love to hear) but he said he’d sold it and it didn’t appear that he’d be replacing it any time soon. Bart has established himself as one of the current greats of jazz flute, with good reason, having garnered attention in the polls of one of the most prestigious publications in jazz. Amina is quick to heap great praise on her talented husband explaining that his sound belongs only to him and with that recognizable sound comes true power that she says impressed her from the beginning as he could easily be heard right alongside the trumpet and tenor sax in the front line of horns she loves to employ.

I was speaking to Amina and Bart before their performance and they were graciously giving me time that they needed to prepare for the show but I wanted to cover two more topics. I wondered how they established and maintain compatibility musically and personally and how they felt about having worked the “Magic Trick” that so many international jazz musicians would like to work, that being making the permanent move to New York City. They briefly stated that musically they felt like they made music together easily from the start and that the reason this was never an issue was that when it comes to the music Amina is almost completely in charge. There seem to be no controversies as she simply calls the shots and, as Bart explained, when they are on stage or in the studio he is simply another of the guys in the band, albeit a very valuable guy with a personal attachment to the bandleader. When it comes to the business of their collective enterprise Bart is in charge and this simple division of duties, if you will, makes things run smoothly. They respect the space that each occupies in the operation and all’s well in Amina Figarova’s musical world. Would that the rest of the world would take note of this art of compromise and division of duties for the common good!

As for the move to New York, that seemed totally natural by all accounts. Here are two erudite, worldly, talented, intelligent and confident people who’ve come from Europe and found a way to make the entire USA their musical playground and work space. They spent time in Boston, attending The Berklee College of Music, and established and maintained relationships with cities like New Orleans, Chicago, San Francisco and New York. Few Americans can say they have worked and/or travelled as extensively as these two. Since jazz is their trade New York, with its openness and acceptance of any and all people and styles, was the ultimate goal and they made the move some time ago. Since arriving Bart has made his mark with the previously mentioned poll position as one of the top flutists in jazz and Amina’s recordings are always well-received and reviewed and she even performed as an honored and requested artist at the recent celebration of the NEA Jazz Masters induction ceremony in January at the Jazz @ Lincoln Center complex. Speaking of performing, it was time to end my conversation and head to the beautiful interior of Dizzy’s to hear the band.

Amina placed music from her latest release, Twelve, on exhibition along with some new music she’s been working on for an upcoming project. The band featured Bart on flutes of course alongside Marc Mommaas on tenor sax, Alex Pope Norris on trumpet, Luques Curtis on bass and Jason Brown on drums. The band was swinging to start things and the set included cuts like “NYCST,” dedicated to their adopted home of New York, “Leila” dedicated to Amina’s beloved grandmother, a 3-song suite inspired by Amina’s love of the ocean and including one of my personal favorite pieces from Twelve, the spirited “Sneaky Seagulls,” and a fun and rhythmic piece that is still to be recorded and released titled “Toxic Dance.” All through the set the wonderful sense of dynamics that Amina possesses was on display featuring her powerful then sensitive moments on piano along with the three gentlemen on horns and woodwinds who thrilled with powerful horn section blasts and individual moments of brilliance. One that specifically stood out for me was the sax lead on the poignant “Back To New Orleans,” inspired by Amina’s first visit to The Crescent City after Katrina, that simply brought tears to my eyes.

There was no doubt that the set was created by a group of musicians at the top of their game led by a pianist/composer who is at the top of jazz at this point in history. If you want to catch Amina Figarova and Bart Platteau in concert, or just to chat for a minute or two, you better get busy because these two are always on the go. Their schedule finds them, as usual, travelling from coast to coast in the USA and Canada with many stops along the way, and that’s just in the next month! This is truly one impressive “Jazz Couple” literally and figuratively “On The Go!”

Russ Davis

Russ Davis produces and presents the only jazz program – “Jazz America” – for the U.S. Government Service, Voice of America. He also programs and presents the online modern jazz channel MOJA Radio, a subscription service. You can hear a number of free programs, including the latest Jazz America show by visiting MOJA Radio’s website.