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Amina Figarova: Cross-Continental Jazz

By Published: July 8, 2008
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 everywhere—parents 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.

Amina FigarovaAAJ: When you were focusing on classical, did you have favorite pieces to 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 performances—if 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 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 cook—because 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.

Amina Figarova

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 York—that 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 must—I 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 room—staying 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 something—I 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 downstairs—I 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 air—later I knew it was because of a light wind blowing towards Brooklyn—but 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 street—people 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 because—you 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?

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Download jazz mp3 “Whotsot” by Amina Figarova