Internationally known jazz musician and composer Amina Figarova, a native of the former Iron Curtain country of Azerbaijan, has been playing the piano since 1968.
Not bad, when you consider she was born in 1966.
“I started walking early,” she recalls, “and I walked over to our piano and started using my fingers on it. My mother wasn’t a musician, but she could play a few songs, and she showed me where to put my fingers on the keys. It was very basic.
“I’m coming from a very musical family, although they weren’t musicians, so it was somewhere in my blood and genes. The next thing I did, when I was three, was pick up melodies I heard on the radio. At the time, what you could hear on the radio were popular songs in Azerbaijan. So the piano became my favorite toy. My mother realized there was something special going on, so she bought a grand piano to take the place of the old upright piano we had.”
Still, even though she started at a remarkably early age, Figarova was never forced into musical pursuits by her family.
“No, nobody pushed me,” she says. “My mother didn’t want me to be a child prodigy, so since I wasn’t pushed, it was all very natural.”
An obviously precocious talent like hers could hardly be ignored, however. So, by the time she was six, Figarova was taking classes at “a special music conservatory for kids,” where everything she learned revolved around classical music.
“Playing in other genres and styles was not encouraged there,” she notes. “But it was encouraged by my parents, especially my mother. I listened a lot to jazz music as a kid – my mother would play Louis Armstrong and Oscar Peterson – and I loved it. But I denied it because, being influenced by my teachers, it was classical, classical, classical. So jazz remained a mystery to me. I did not think I was able to do that.”
Years later, when she was studying at the Rotterdam Conservatory in the Netherlands, where she would also go on holidays, she heard a performer who changed her mind.
“I met this great jazz player in the Netherlands, who had an ability to do everything,” she remembers. “Rob van Kreeveld. He’d just go all over the place. I listened to him, and I heard him do some classical quotes, and I thought, `If he can do that, can go from classical to jazz, why can’t I?’ So I asked him if I could study with him.
“I called from the Netherlands to my mother, and she said, `I told you that you could do it all your life. Just go do it,'” Figarova added with a laugh.
She eventually came to America to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she continued honing her skills as both a solo pianist and jazz composer. The idea to put together her own group solidified after she attended the Thelonious Monk Jazz Colony Summer Camp in Aspen, Colorado, back in 1998.
“As a classical player, I had always loved the sound of big bands, because I had played with a lot of symphonic orchestras,” she explains. “But I also knew that there wasn’t much opportunity to play solos. Then I was in Colorado playing with a big band, looking out over a beautiful mountain view, and that was the moment my sextet was born. I knew I had to create a band that was powerful like a big band, but allowed for more individual freedom.”
Figarova works in both a sextet and a quintet, and it’s the latter that she’ll be bringing to the Jazz Depot. A mixture of players from both Holland and New York, where Figarova now lives, the group includes Alex Pope Norris on trumpet, Jeroen Vierdag on bass, Jason Brown on drums, and Bart Platteu, Figarova’s husband, on flute.
The Amina Figarova Quintet is set to begin at 7:00p.m. Thursday, August 15, at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, located in downtown Tulsa’s Jazz Depot, 111 E. First Street. Tickets can be purchased at the depot, from www.myticketoffice.com, or by calling Bettie Downing at 918-281-8609. General admission is $15, reserved table seating $20. Seniors and Jazz Hall members are admitted for $10, and high school and junior high students for $5.
Ms. Figarova is also scheduled to conduct a jazz-piano master class on Wednesday, August 14, 1:00 pm, for high school and college musicians. The event is a part of the Jazz Hall’s Summer Concert Series.