New York based, Baku born pianist Amina Figarova is making rolling waves on the international jazz circuit. When Ahmad Jamal had to withdraw from the Johannesburg Joy of Jazz Festival due to illness last summer, Amina Figarova was called in to replace him. She last appeared in the UK during the 2012 London Jazz Festival and was raved about by critics. She has featured at major international festivals throughout the world. Her audiences are as loyal as her band members. Currently on tour in the USA and then Europe with her Sextet, Amina took time to talk to Fran Hardcastle to talk about life on the road as a bandleader and the women who have inspired her.
Fran Hardcastle: You have been touring with several members of your current sextet for nearly two decades now, with the more recent additions of trumpeter Alex Pope Norris & drummer Jason Brown. What are the challenges involve in keeping a band together for so long?
Amina Figarova: I think that responsibility is the biggest challenge. As a bandleader you’re responsible not just for the music but for every aspect of being a leader. That includes concerts, concert venues, instruments, tour arrangements. Of course you can rely on your manager or booker or tour manager, but no matter what – band members would always keep you responsible for every little step. Besides, if you want to be a band leader you have to be able keep the band and that means that band has to play. That’s why your involvement into every little aspect is very crucial. You are the only one who truly cares about existence of your band.
Then there is the music! Priority number one. Whether it is original music or arrangements of a standard, it’s you, it’s your sound it’s a band sound, it’s a inspiration for the students. Often we don’t realize how much we have an impact on students or fans. And the most rewarding part? It’s a performance! Even just a moment, but a magical moment in a performance, makes it worth it all.
FH: Are there any moments in your career that you could pinpoint as turning points?
AF: There were a lot of very different turning points in my career, great festivals such as Newport Jazz festival, Chicago Jazz festival, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival, Johannesburg Joy of Jazz Festival, North Sea Jazz Festival, Bahia Jazz Festival and many more. I have also played with some incredible musicians. Fortunately, I have not that many negative experiences in my career, but it’s all a learning process. Whether it’s good or bad, I don’t want to dwell on it, just learn from it and move on.
FH: How is the current tour going?
AF: The tour is going fantastic, most of the venues are sold out, audiences are very enthusiastic. Musically it’s great, I think it’s very inspiring for the whole sextet, there is so much musical trust, we easily take risks and try out things and that inspires me to write more.
Originally we were going to go to the studio right in the middle of the tour, but I was not ready, I simply had no time to write more music. But a few new compositions that I did take with me on tour got a shape and have a very fresh sound. This tour is like a catalyst – I have much more clear idea of where I am going with the new album.
FH: Where does the inspiration for your compositions come from?
AF: Everything is an inspiration, everything has sound, color and rhythm. The point is to find the right inspiration to bring your music and your band to the next level. That’s usually pretty tricky. It’s so easy to fall back into your old ideas, habits, sound or get into something totally different. I think that every new project or album should have a more or less logical development from the previous project and a clear direction to the next chapter.
FH: Your last album, Twelve, featured three really beautiful pieces inspired by women in your life. The charming ‘Leila’ and sweet & gentle ‘Isabelle’, are stunning. What other women in your life have inspired or influenced you?
AF: The only important women in my life were my mother and my grandmother. Both of them were very extraordinary in their own way. My grandmother was a career women, she was a director of medical college and a doctor. She also had an incredible knowledge of world history. She had a photographic memory and despite not being a musician played five or 6 different instruments very well. Her career was her priority, as much as she was a great mother and wife, she was amazing in planning and she could do it all. She would spend her free time with me, teaching me about great poets and Greek philosophers.
My mother was also a career women, although not as strong as my grandmother. However, she had so much charisma and such a strong energy, it was almost overwhelming. I had great father and grandfather too, who were also very strong in developing great careers, but the women in our family and also the women around me were often leading in their ﬁelds. That’s why to me being a women and a leader is just a normal thing.
Fran Hardcastle: So when can we expect your next album?
Amina Figarova: I don’t usually write while on tour, so hopefully after our European tour I can complete the writing for the new album. And then we have to plan it… it’s never that easy to get 6 very busy musicians in the studio, but I do hope we can accomplish it somewhere in the summer and I am looking forward to that very much!
Amina’s album Twelve is available through iTunes and online from Proper Music.