Saturday, August 29, 2015

Jazz Kitchen performing debut: The intricate swing of Amina Figarova

Amina Figarova revels in a joyful moment at the Jazz Kitchen.
Amina Figarova, a native of Azerbaijan who has established herself well as a jazz composer-pianist first in Europe, now in the U.S., understandably says she would rather play than judge young pianists.

She has been in the latter role once at the Jazz Kitchen, sitting on the jury of the American Pianists Association's Jazz Piano Competition earlier this year. Her own music seems as convoluted as any imaginable jury deliberation. Its intricacies delivered payoffs, however, in the almost two sets I heard at the Jazz Kitchen, where she made her Indianapolis performing debut here Friday.

Figarova, specializing in a sextet book of her own making, properly paid special tribute near the end of her second set to Rob Dixon, sitting in on tenor and soprano saxophone and fitting in superbly in his first outing in Figarova territory.

Other members of the group she's traveling with (she'll appear at the South Bend Jazz Festival today) are her husband, flutist Bart Platteau; trumpeter Alex Norris; bassist Rashaan Carter, and drummer Jason Brown.

The opening number had a kind of deep churn that displayed her writing's piquant harmonies and rhythms well. Figarova's piano solos are typically single-line affairs, a predilection offering a nice contrast with the density of her writing for the band.

So many jazz pianists these days think vertically that sometimes one becomes nostalgic for the Bud Powell legacy of right-hand soaring, winding and skittering. Yet Figarova has something to say in the lower register and with the left hand, too. That was more than adequately set forth in her unaccompanied solo introducing "Blue Whisper," the title song of a new CD, the 13th under her leadership. Its plangent octaves and tenor-range melody initially gave a funereal cast to the piece, which soon shook off the moribund mood as her bandmates joined in.

Dixon took one of his best solos of the evening (on soprano sax).  I had lost the thread of Carter's bass soloing in the previous number, despite Figarova's efforts to keep everything grounded, so I was pleased that his long showcase that brought "Blue Whisper" to its conclusion made more sense: It had an Eddie Gomez sort of fluidity wedded to a Charles Mingus better-get-it-in-your-soul urgency.

The band showed off its pinpoint control in the fast-moving "Sneaky Seagulls," with its three-horn chirps and squawks punctuating the flight of Figarova's piano. Also displaying both virtuosity and a sense of humor was "NYCST," which stands for New York City Subway Tango. The sometimes anxious piece featured some of the flutist's best work of the night: Platteau's phrases are well-connected and his tone is substantial, not the peanut brittle you get from some reedmen who pick up the flute now and then. This man is a specialist, and it shows.

With so much creativity coming out of the bandleader's mind and fingers, at the keyboard as well as onto the page, it's not surprising that performance will always provide Figarova with more pleasure than weighing the merits of ambitious youngsters — however necessary that work may be.










[Photo by Mark Sheldon]