Review: Amina Figarova Sextet and Isfar Sarabski Trio
(Ronnie Scott’s, 9th Feb 2015. Part of the Buta Festival of Azerbaijani Arts)
‘You’re not here to enjoy yourselves!’ You could almost hear the ghost of Ronnie Scott teasing the mostly Azerbaijani audience, whose enjoyment of pianists Amina Figarova and Isfar Sarabski was evident. You don’t often see as many young women in jazz audiences as there were for this gig, and they were clearly devoted. Jazz has long been a significant part of Azeri cultural life- a new name has been coined: ‘Jazzerbaijan’.
The two pianists have much in common: both were born in Azerbaijan, where they had a grounding in European Classical music. Figarova now lives in New York- she studied jazz at Berklee where Sarabski is now studying. Both draw on traditional Azeri folk music (Mugham) as well as modern jazz.
Much of Figarova’s inspiration comes from her Azeri roots: her uplifting tune Leila (from her CD Twelve) concluded her set. It was inspired by her grandmother (‘a big boss…a vivid person who loved to dance’, dedicated to everyone in the audience with the same name- there seemed quite a few!) The Latin groove had infectious bass and piano unison lines at its core. They opened out into sweet flute lines (Bart Platteau) with answers from the punchy trumpet of Frederik Köster and tenor (Johannes Mueller). Figarova’s arrangements were intriguing, full of unexpected harmonic corners, and tiny written details that changed the mood. Jeroen Vierdag’s bass and Jason Brown’s drums played cat and mouse with the pulse in their solos, Vierdag with delicacy, and Brown with tumbling drum rolls. Figarova’s arrangement of an Azeri folk tune was gorgeous. (She translated it as Under the Rocks, apparently often played in Azeri theatres) the haunting melody pulled back and forth by darker harmonies taken from jazz scales. The writing was clever too, making three horns sound like far more, a flute-led sound with a Gil Evans touch.
Two tunes were from her forthcoming thirteenth album Blue Whisper. Figarova lived for many years in Holland before moving to New York, and there was sometimes a European feel to her writing- even Kenny Wheeler-esque. The title track had meditative piano chords teased out by the three horns into orchestral sounds. The effervescent flute and the breathy vibrato of the tenor kept the tune’s melancholy mood running through their solos. A number of Figarova’s tune titles seem to refer to journeys- she tours constantly- and Traveller had a more urban feel, funky, jumping restlessly from chord to Glasper-ish chord. The rhythms seemed pleasantly awry, perhaps using some of the complexities of Azeri traditional music too. Figarova’s solo was poised and thrillingly rhythmic- Herbie Hancock was an early influence. She once told an interviewer that playing music was like ‘air and water’ to her, and that’s just how it seemed.
Isfar Sarabski still in his mid-20s, captured the audience with dramatic dynamics and sheer technical brilliance. The tunes had no introductions- and often seemed to need none, as the audience sang and clapped along to the familiar pieces mingling with Sarabski’s originals. There were often intense piano introductions. (Sarabski won the 2009 Montreux Jazz Festival solo piano competition) Chopin’s Romanticism would be pulled suddenly into ferociously fast right hand runs, then block chords and grace notes worthy of Abdullah Ibrahim. The piano seemed to be echoing Azeri vocal improvisation, where the ornamentation slides, sometimes delicately like the blues, sometimes in a frenzy. The careful arrangements allowed Russian acoustic bassist Makar Novikov and drummer Alexander Mashin to move from Bill Evans-esque ballads to Bad Plus-style jazz rock and funk, and the audience loved the huge contrasts. Sarabski is a devotee of the 70s jazz of Azeri pianist Vagif Mustafa Zadeh and his Mugham-edged jazz compositions, and there was a strong influence. At other times Sarabski played Chick Corea-style rhythms, before dropping down into exquisite Schubertian chords and free jazz, the way Michael Wollny can.
You felt these extraordinary musicians were developing new styles of jazz, rooted in their national music as well as the jazz heritage- and taking it to the world’s stages.