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:
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.AAJ:
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 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.