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Amina Figarova: Cross-Continental Jazz

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One by one, it grew into a tribute to mourning. After all, it is not about a building that went down, it is about the people in the building that lost their lives.
Amina FigarovaBorn in Azerbaijan, but located now in the Netherlands, and in demand at festivals and clubs around the globe, pianist Amina Figarova is a case study in the internationalization of jazz. A prodigious talent from early childhood, Figarova was drawn to jazz as a young player, even as she established herself as a formidable professional classical performer.

While studying composition by invitation in Rotterdam, she switched to a jazz course, and within a year was at the Berklee School in Boston. She has not looked back since. Touring constantly, Figarova has established an international following appreciative of her comprehensive command of the keyboard, her wide ranging compositions, and her ability to delve deeply into the personal.

As a player and composer, Figarova draws from her wealth of experiences touring across Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, but at heart remains deeply connected to jazz's traditions—and traditional home, New York City, as evidenced by her sober suite of mourning composed in eulogy to those who died on September 11, 2001.

This interview was conducted just prior to her departure from the Netherlands on one of her many tours to the United States.

All About Jazz: You were born and raised in Azerbaijan, correct?

Amina Figarova: That's right.

AAJ: Simply because of its location alone, it's a country of many cultural and historic influences. Can you describe growing up there?

AF: Azerbaijan is located in Eurasia, right between the Black and Caspian sea. It used to be part of the Soviet Union, a pretty southern country north of Turkey. You can compare [Azerbaijan] to some southern European countries in way of life—relaxed, good food, good music. It is a very important ingredient—good music and good food—it's really very essential to life.

Musically it is very interesting. Rhythmically there are lots of influences, including elements from African and Arabic music—the rhythms and also the scales. And [its] folk music is basically kind of like in jazz, an improvisation with the scales and the lyrics, and that's the same. So [I was] growing up in a country where people always appreciated jazz, I think because of the nature of the folk music. It was very interesting. I studied classical music when I was little, and then I went to conservatory. But since I was very little, I used to hear jazz. Also my parents loved American jazz so we always had records at home. When I was little I was listening to Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Pass, later Herbie Hancock.

AAJ: Your parents were both jazz fans. Did they play as well?

AF: No, but they exposed me to a lot of music. My mom played a little piano. Actually the whole family is in different fields—politicians and mostly doctors. But music played a big part in our family life. Besides that, music was always on. When you get together, most of our family could play some kind of instrument, and we were making music together. It was very important to our family life.

AAJ: When did you leave Azerbaijan?

Amina FigarovaAF: I was invited to the Netherlands as a classical musician. I was invited here to play concerts. At the time when I was here, there was a program about me on Moscow Radio International because at the time I was going back and forth. I was preparing for a classical competition, but I also had lots of friends that were jazz musicians. I was writing at the time popular music—not jazz because at that time I did not even dare to go there! [laughs] But they were all influenced by jazz harmonies. I would ask my fellow jazz musicians to play them. So there was a program about me on the radio. The program you could hear all over the world because it was a special international service. While here in the Netherlands, my friends who I stayed with listened to the program and they really loved my compositions. They didn't tell me a thing, but they recorded it...and sent it to someone they knew at the conservatory in Rotterdam. Before I knew it—within one week—I was invited to study composition class here.

My mother had always told me that one day I would have to pay attention to this—because all my life I had written music. I did not pay attention to it though; I was just writing for fun, never taking it seriously. So this rang the bell that maybe I should pay attention to it, and I began in the composition class. But I did not like it! Within one month I changed to the jazz program. And that's where I stayed until one year later when I went to the Berklee College.

AAJ: How old were you when this all happened?

AF: It was in the eighties, '89, so after I had graduated and was already working as a professional musician.

AAJ: The late eighties and early nineties were a pretty politically turbulent time with a lot of changes in the Soviet Union, particularly in Azerbaijan. All this coincided with these big steps for your music?

AF: Actually, there were political changes in all aspects. There were political troubles in the Caucuses, and war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, which we hated. Lots of friends left the country because of the war. I had lots of Armenian friends, and they were gone. It was terrible, you know? So we would see each other in Moscow or somewhere else because the situation was so unstable. The thing is that it did not really effect [me] further than that because, at the time, I also was traveling with the concerts, and playing festivals and concerts. As far as it goes [with] Soviet Union politics, I think that period of my life was so busy with music. I was of course paying attention, but also so busy studying and playing that it kind of passed me by. The period of war, though, was troubling. Azerbaijan used to be so cosmopolitan a city, and with these things going on, all the different nationalities leaving, you lost many friends.

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