It used to be, all good jazz originated out of New Orleans, then Chicago, then New York. And a lot of it still does these days. Eventually, Western Europe became the place of origin for a lot of great jazz for several generations, now, and even Eastern Europe is the home of some mighty good jazz performers, a few of whom have been profiled here. But nowadays, you can find good jazz from the Caucasus region where Europe meets the Middle East part of Asia. Exhibit A for my case is the Azerbaijan born and raised Amina Figarova.
Having grown up in the Soviet era, Figarova learned classical piano at the Baku Conservatory, but switched her studies to jazz when attending the Rotterdam Conservatory and finished up at the Berklee School of Music in Boston. She furthered he education at the Thelonius Monk Jazz Colony in Aspen, Colorado, and has toured and performed with the likes of James Moody, Larry Coryell, Toots Thielemans and Claudio Roditi. Her husband is flautist Bart Platteau, with whom she has an extensive working relationship as well.
Figarova boasts about nine or ten albums to her name, starting with 1994's Attraction. A couple of weeks ago on August 10, she released her latest, Sketches. A program of all originals, Sketches's thirteen songs explores mainstream jazz in a sextet configuration using musicians from and around her adopted country of the Netherlands. It's a similar game plan as her last few records, and since it works, she fittingly sees no reason to mess with that formula.
This set reminds me a bit of Speak Like A Child era Herbie Hancock. Like Hancock, Figarova uses her classical background to blend stately horn arrangements with the light swing of post-bop jazz. It's a little lighter and nimbler and incorporates more improvisation, however. Four Steps To...," Sketches" and Your Room" demonstrates how this approach adds a healthy does of mood, while Marc Mommaas' lissome and emotional tenor sax produces the fire in each of these songs. Unacceptable" shows off a little of Figarova's avant-garde side that reveals how complex her composing can get. Caribou Crossing" is a showcase for both Figarova's unforced style on piano and Platteau's flute acumen that makes one think of James Spaulding's excellent supporting work on classic Blue Note records of the 60s.
Flight No" as a whole replicates that Blue Note feel, especially with Ernie Hammes' trumpet recalling Freddie Hubbard's peak form from that time. Chris Buckshot" Strik's jungle rhythms that begin and end the song spices it up even further. The start-stop nature of Whotsot" makes the song pop without losing any momentum. Back In New Orleans" isn't some second-line beat tune, but a slow, modal piece that is lean, loose and contains a brief but nice solo for bassist Jeroen Vierdag (who integrates his bass into Figarova's harmonic lines rather well all throughout the album). Happy Hour" mixes a busy, tough groove with a Brazilian vibe enhanced nicely by Platteau's flute.
There isn't a weak track in this assortment of compositions, because Figarova approaches as composition as its own entity, finding the best arrangements that work for each song, accentuating the melodic flow and getting the other players deeply involved in making them work. Pianist, composer, bandleader, Amina Figarova is the complete package.
Yes indeed, there's good jazz rooted in Azerbaijan.