Amina Figarova: Cross-Continental Jazz
“ 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. ”
Born 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 traditionsand 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 liferelaxed, good food, good music. It is a very important ingredientgood music and good foodit's really very essential to life.
Musically it is very interesting. Rhythmically there are lots of influences, including elements from African and Arabic musicthe 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 fieldspoliticians 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?
AF: 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 musicnot 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 itwithin one weekI was invited to study composition class here.
My mother had always told me that one day I would have to pay attention to thisbecause 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.
AAJ: You mentioned at the beginning that there was a lot of jazz in Azerbaijan. I don't think most of us imagine Azerbaijan or the Soviet Union at that time as having a big jazz scene. What was the jazz scene like? What is it like now?
AF: I was listening to records. But we had our own jazz musicians from Azerbaijan and the Soviet Union. We used to have a lot of jazz festivals. Musicians came from all over the Soviet Union. I don't remember all the names because I was very little when I was going to the festivals, but there were American musicians, Dutch musicians, European musicians. The jazz festivals were actually every year until at a certain point, during the trouble period, it stopped for awhile. But in general there are again jazz festivals now every year and jazz clubs. The scene is pretty good. (laughs)
AAJ: You said you started studying classical piano when you were little. When did it start?
AF: We had a piano in the house. I discovered the thing there when I was little. I had just started walking. I was around two years old when I started playing. My parents didn't want to pressure me, because that was going on everywhereparents pressuring children to start early. My parents wanted to give me a normal time to develop. But I was pressuring them myself. I went to school earlier than I was supposed to. I was six when I went to a kind of special conservatory for children.
AAJ: Do you remember when you really fell in love with the piano?
AF: It was love from first sight. It was to me my friend. I was talking to it, I was playing with the piano, I had all my dolls around the piano as my audience. I was playing all my life. Nobody could stop me. I would sit and play and play and play.
AF: Of course. As you know, classical education in countries of the former Soviet Union was pretty strict. There were of course programs we had to play. We had to do it all: Bach and Mozart and Beethoven. And of course every period, I had my favorites.
AAJ: Do you still have some favorites you go back to?
AF: Whenever I have time between my jazz tours, if I have two or three weeks, I even go play some classical performancesif I find time to practice. It is different. It goes from Rachmaninov to Ravel, from Beethoven to Schumann.
AAJ: As a player, how does it feel different to play classical compared to jazz?
AF: It does not feel different. The timing is different! When I play with my own band, which I do a lot, I perform my own music. When I play with other musicians or when I play classical music, that is when I play music other than my own. That to me is the difference. When you play your own music, you have a completely different perspective, than when you are playing someone else's, of how to interpret it. So that's more the difference.
AAJ: After you finished studying at the conservatory in the Netherlands, you went to Berklee College in Boston. Had you been to the United State prior to that?
AF: No, that was the first time.
AAJ: What was your first reaction?
AF: I loved it right from the first time. The school is great. The whole atmosphere is fantastic. I liked the in-a-nice-way competitive atmosphere. It is very stimulating. You have great players around. All you want to do is become better...it was like I had lived there forever.
AAJ: You said food is a vital ingredient of life. What was your favorite restaurant in Boston?
AF: Oh! (laughs) That was a long time ago. At that time I had already met my husband, and we'd been there together, so we would cookbecause we had our own little apartment there.
AAJ: So your favorite restaurant was your kitchen?
AF: It is better this way. The same with my kitchen here...this is our huge hobby for us here.
AAJ: What do you cook?
AF: Everything. But most of the time fish, good grains, and good wines. That makes it right for me.
AAJ: You now live in Rotterdam. So many musicians try so hard to come to New York. You hear that story a lot. But you decided to stay in Rotterdam.
AF: We considered living in New York. The thing is we travel a lot, coming to the United States quite often. Nowadays it's not really as important where you live as long as you have your instrument and a good airport. Whenever I feel like going to New York, it has become so easy to travel, you are just there and you can absorb all the great energy. But there is also a lot of interesting music happening in Europe, and you don't want to miss that either.
AAJ: There is still a mythology about New Yorkthat it is the only place.
AF: To me New York stays a magical place. There is a magic. I get amazingly inspired every time I am in New York. That is why I mustI must go to New York! I must be there at least twice a year. Otherwise I horribly miss it.
AAJ: Your relationship with New York is clearly quite strong. You were in New York on September 11, 2001, correct?
AF: I was in New York and played at the Blue Note on September 9th, and the day after, had a wonderful meeting with Women in Jazz in New York, and we got back pretty late. I was in my roomstaying with a friend in Brooklyn. So at nine o'clock I was still in bed, and my friend was leaving, and I heard her saying somethingI can't remember what. So I was awake and I thought, "Let me call my husband," since he was home in Holland and nine here is three there. So I thought, "Let me see what he is doing." So I am calling and he is all in a panic, shouting hysterically, "Are you all right? Where are you?" And I had no idea what he was talking about because I had just awakened. He told me to put the TV on, so I did. About that time the first tower fell, but there was not cable so all I had was snow on the TV. So I called home and [my husband] was telling me what happened, and my parents were telling me what was happening.
I went downstairsI was trying to get to Brooklyn Heights to see what was happening. But everything was very strange, because I did not know exactly what had happened. And there was a kind of powder in the airlater I knew it was because of a light wind blowing towards Brooklynbut at this point it looked to me like dust, and there was someone on the street saying, "It's an attack, an attack!" So I thought maybe some kind of chemical attack. I had no clue. So I went back to the room, and I shut all the windows. It was very warm outside. I was very scared, because I could not get any information; the TV was not working. It is terrible what has happened, but you are alone and cannot talk to anyone, and I could not get connected because at a certain point the phones were down.
Finally, I went to the streets again and began talking to people. It became like a surreal movie to me because the sun is shinning. No cars on the streetpeople on the street. And there was this little girl asking her mother, "Mommy, is it a holiday?" She says no. "But why is everyone on the street? Why is everyone so sad?" You could hear the sirens, and you feel yourself totally helpless becauseyou can't help. I was thinking at this point, what is the point of making music if people are dying and you can't do anything?
AAJ: All of this eventually turned into the album September Suite?
AF: That's right. But it's not like I came home and decided to write. I'm describing the state of mind I was in. But like everyone else, I was probably in some version of [shock]alone and just conversing with myself. Finally, when I came home a week later, I was in such a deep shock, I was not thinking about writing; I was probably trying to deal with it in my own way. I decided not to watch anymore TV. I could not bear it anymore. Still, by accident, I saw on TV one program that struck me down. That is how it started. I just saw the program and started crying. And all my feeling came back to me. As always when I feel sad, I went to the piano and the first piece came out. 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.
AAJ: It's a tremendous work. Thank you for it.
You now have a new album on its way, Above the Clouds, correct?
AAJ: What should we expect with this latest work?
AF: I did not have a specific goal for this CD; I was just ready for something new. After September Suite and Come Escape with Me, I was in doubt which way I would go. I didn't want to pressure myself to go in a particular direction, because September Suite is very different from Come Escape with Me. I decided to see whatever would come out. So I must say, in this album there is a mix of groovy stuff, because I love a good groove, and I think it will take the listener to a different place from what I usually do. But not in the way September Suite does. It is hard to describe in words!
But there are two pieces on the album that I can tell a little bit more about. Those two pieces are recorded with a nonet, and they are a preview of the CD I want to record next. It has to do with the story of Henry Hudson who came to Manhattan 400 years agothe great English traveler who went with a Dutch boat looking for the passage to China... and he anchored at what is today known as New York. When I was reading about his triphow small the ship was, and in the beginning going even the wrong way and ending up in Norway, sailing through the ice, smoke, fogthis experience, it's all pretty incredible. So the two pieces on the album, "Sailing Through the Icy Waters" and "River of Mountains," are a preview of the whole suite I want to write about this trip.