Like many others, Amina Figarova found that her life changed radically following the events of September 11, 2001. On the day that hijacked airliners brought down the World Trade Center’s two towers, the Azerbaijani pianist was in New York City, playing the fabled Blue Note jazz club. But the true impact of the attack didn’t hit home until weeks later, once she’d returned to Rotterdam, where she was living at the time.
“When I came home after that, I saw this documentary on the BBC about a lady who’d lost her husband, and the interview was taking place on a boat going towards Manhattan,” Figarova says, speaking in lightly accented English from a tour stop in Boise, Idaho. “You still could see the smoke coming from Ground Zero, and she was telling a story about her husband. She was trying to hold back her tears because she was with her daughter, and her daughter was in total denial. She was like, ‘Uh, no. I will find my father. Miracles happen. There’s no Christmas without him.’ I started crying when I saw that, and then I went right away to the piano and I started writing about it. I found myself writing purely different music, something I was not writing before, because those emotions are heavy. They’re not pretty; they’re ugly, in a way. It was ugly, what happened, and I found myself expressing it in a very new way for me—describing raw emotions just the way they are.”
Not long after 9/11, Figarova’s father died, and the musician’s sorrow intensified. “I was looking for a way to describe pain, a way to describe despair and emptiness and numbness,” she says. “So that was probably a turning point for me. I was basically writing the process of mourning: all the chapters that we go through, from mourning to rage, and all the memories that go along with that.”
Figarova’s dark meditations formed the basis for 2005’s universally acclaimed September Suite. On the basis of her most recent release, Blue Whisper, those deep feelings are still there, but they’ve been leavened by the happy experience of almost 20 years with her gifted and unusual sextet, which adds a flute to the common jazz lineup of piano, bass, drums, trumpet, and tenor sax. It’s not entirely irrelevant that the flutist, Bart Platteau, is Figarova’s husband, but it’s the sound that this slightly bigger band makes that speaks to the pianist’s soul.
“When I was studying at the [Thelonious] Monk Institute, taking summer courses in 1998, I found myself playing with a big band of students,” she says. “And I love the big-band sound, but I was sitting there playing and thinking, ‘Oh my god, how do I create the same sound, but with more space for myself?’ Because, you know, the piano role in a big band is minimal. And I was also thinking, ‘How do I create a band where there’s space for everyone?’ So that’s how the idea came about.”
Setting Platteau’s flute on top of sax and trumpet allows for richer chord voicings, Figarova explains, while the sextet format retains the nimbleness of small-group jazz. The 53-year-old musician also notes that she’s recently discovered a new way of writing for her ensemble—and while she doesn’t want to give too much away about that, she promises that at her upcoming Vancouver engagement, she’ll offer some sonic hints as to where she’s going.
“To explain it simply,” she says, “there is one way that horns get played together, in harmony. But there are ways where you can layer each individual horn player in a different direction, and they play melodies not necessarily at the same time. It’s as if they’re coming from different points, on different roads; they meet each other, and they separate, and then they come back. So that’s been my latest exploration—an exploration of another side of the sextet.”
The Amina Figarova Sextet plays Frankie’s Jazz Club on Saturday (May 5).