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Amina Figarova: Blue Whisper

Dave Wayne By

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Pianist and composer Amina Figarova is truly a citizen of the world. Born and raised in Baku, Azerbaijan, she decamped to the Netherlands in the 1980s to study at the Rotterdam Conservatory, and then to Boston in 1989 to continue her studies at Berklee. Blue Whisper is her 12th recording as a leader, but her first to feature a band comprised primarily of US-based musicians. Aside from Bart Platteau (also Figarova's husband), the only holdovers from her excellent Netherlands-based band, Ernie Hammes and Marc Mommaas, only play on a few tracks. Despite the sea-change of personnel, Figarova's identity as a composer and pianist remains intact on Blue Whisper. Though she leads a relatively large ensemble capable of blasting through her soulful post-bop compositions à la Art Blakey or Horace Silver, Figarova opts for a different, multi-hued approach. Her compositions are subtle and tuneful and often demand a measure of restraint from the soloists. Her arrangements are characterized by a delicate layering of instruments and voicings, with the trademark sound of Platteau's flute leading the front line.

Just as consistently, however, Blue Whisper swings hard. Not to take anything away from Figarova's excellent former drummer, Chris "Buckshot" Strik, but Jason Brown's playing on Blue Whisper is simply marvelous. Brown is one of the new generation of drummers—guys like Marcus Gilmore, Tyshawn Sorey, and Makaya McCraven—who are currently setting the jazz world on its collective ear. Here, his playing is wonderfully subtle. Brown's gentle, almost march-like cadences on the title track, an elegiac ballad, are perfect—the tune needs something more than brushes, but a slow rock beat wouldn't work either. He shines particularly brightly on two slyly funky pieces, "The Traveler" and "The Hustler," that seem almost tailor-made for Brown's dynamic, poly-rhythmic approach. Like Sorey and Nasheet Waits, Brown has a light touch that permits him to play a bit more busily than more heavy-handed drummers. He locks in well with both bassists. The other new players in the lineup are seasoned pros. Big-toned tenor man Wayne Escoffery and nimble trumpeter Alexander Pope Norris acquit themselves in stellar fashion, as one would expect.

Figarova and Platteau are both in excellent form throughout Blue Whisper. An economical, melody-centric soloist, Figarova is at her best when improvising on ballads. Her solos on "Hewa" (nicely assisted by Sarah Charles' wordless vocal) and "Moonrise" are particularly evocative. Yet, she displays a similar sort of grace on the "The Traveler" and the up-tempo "Moving Upwards," one of the more complex and involved pieces she's committed to record. Besides giving the front line a distinctive flavor, Platteau gets plenty of improvisational elbow room. He follows Anthony Wilson's soulful guitar guest shot with a particularly rich improvisation of his own on "Pictures."

Blue Whisper is a strong set of modern mainstream acoustic jazz. Far from a routine effort, Figarova peppers the disc with plenty of curveballs—such as the spoken word on "Hear My Voice"—that will keep listeners on their toes.

Track Listing: Blue Whisper; Moving Upwards; Hear My Voice; The Hustler; Pictures; Marians; The Traveler; Moonrise; Juno; Hewa.

Personnel: Amina Figarova: piano; Bart Platteau: flutes; Alex Pope Norris (1- 7,9-10), Ernie Hammes (8): trumpet; Marc Mommaas (3-6, 8,10), Wayne Escoffery (1-2, 7,9): tenor saxophone; Luques Curtis (1-3, 5,7,9-10), Yasushi Nakamura (4,6,8): bass; Jason Brown: drums; Anthony Wilson: guitar (5); Sarah Elisabeth Charles: vocals (10); Salhiya Bilal Tumba, Shamiyl Bilal Tumba: spoken word (3).

Title: Blue Whisper | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: In + Out Records

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