On Above the Clouds (Munich Records) one of the most cosmopolitan and accomplished artists in jazz today proves that the music is a natural not a national language. Amina Figarova, the globe-trotting Azerbaijan-born, Rotterdam-based composer-pianist-bandleader with more than a dozen recordings to her credit has created a new album of original songs that refresh the classic post-bop idiom established by labels such as Blue Note, Prestige and Impulse! during the 1950s and 1960s. Far from derivative or concept-conscious, though, Above the Clouds unfolds as a personal, vividly colored, confidently-propelled contemporary soundtrack, satisfying in and of itself.
With her husband multi-flutist Bart Platteau central to the three horn frontline Ms. Figarova arranges for her sextet, she plays compelling, artful and heartfelt changes on the urbane, bluesy lyricism originally developed by the likes of Miles Davis, Horace Silver, Bill Evans, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, et al. Though the recipient of rigorous Russian musical education in the classics, Amina has come to identify her sound with these master mainstream-progressives of recent jazz decades after having explored aspects of the avant garde (in September Suite, her shocked and sad response to terrorists attacks on American soil) and multi-keyboard fusion-oriented funk (on Another Me).
Amina is stylistically wide-ranging, unwilling to be pinned down, but most of her compositions on Above the Clouds continue in the direction she set forth on Come Escape With Me, a 2005 release which reached top 10 status on the Jazzweek radio airplay charts (two tracks preview her next project, a suite for octet). Throughout the entire album Amina’s measured, graceful, touching pianism and cooly-controlled ensemble writing demonstrate commitment and ease with a jazz idiom.
Amina made her recording debut with Attraction in 1994, and was accepted into the prestigious Thelonious Monk Jazz Colony in Aspen, Colorado in 1998.
But this program has no other overriding theme than the realization of some beautiful, swinging music. “‘A’ Dance” is an upbeat opener that sets the tone and tempo for most of the album to come. The title track of Above The Clouds occurred to Amina during an airplane flight, “literally above the clouds, and it was very clear. I was listening to music by Maria Schneider [she is enthralled with Ms. Schneider’s album Sky Blue], became inspired and wrote that piece on the plane.” She pens a composition for one of her musicians on each of her albums, but for Above The Clouds wrote two, “Ernie’s Song” and “Nico’s Dream” for her alternating featured trumpeters Ernie Hammes and Nico Schepers. “Sharp Corners” was named “sort of as a joke,” she says, since it’s a very fast blues in the difficult key of C#.
Amina doesn’t provide specific imagery for “Bedtime Story,” preferring listeners apply their imaginations, but says that “Summer Rain” is her interpretation of “a very romantic rain, almost like dancing,” that she experienced one day in the snug shelter of her Rotterdam home. Amina projects a sense of serenity in “Blue Wonder,” and has a story about “Chicago Split”: “A good friend split up with his girlfriend at a gig the first time we performed it, and after doing so he became a very happy man. So it was a good thing for him.” Another friend supplied the title for her tender ballad “Reminiscing.”
The tracks on which Amina added alto saxophone and trombone to her sextet, “Sailing Through the Icy Waters” and “River of Mountains (Muhheakunnuk),” are virtually bonuses to Above The Clouds; they foreshadow her next album, an evocation of Henry Hudson’s exploration of North America 400 years ago (as of March 2009). That album awaits completion — for now enjoy Amina Figarova and company from their soaring, enlightened perspective Above the Clouds.