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Amina Figarova in a New York state of mind

AminFigarovwill perform with trio instead her usual sextet for her Mayne Stage show Friday night. PHOTO COURTESY OF MICHAEL JACKSON

Amina Figarova will perform with a trio, instead of her usual sextet, for her Mayne Stage show on Friday night. PHOTO COURTESY OF MICHAEL JACKSON

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Amina Figarova Trio

8 p.m. May 17, Mayne Stage, 1328 W. Morse. $20-$30;

Updated: June 18, 2013 7:04AM

A thick mane of black hair often thrown back as she gazes upward with closed eyes, Amina Figarova from Azerbaijan cuts a striking figure at the piano, but it’s far from show. Her empathy for the world around her has lead to a flood of compositions over a dozen recordings. Her originals channel people, places and things but with rare equilibrium, given her hectic life in New York City. Figarova, usually in the company of a sextet, presents her new trio with bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Justin Brown, May 17 at Mayne Stage. We caught up with her at home in Queens.

Q. Your music has mellowed since “September Suite” (Munich Records, 2005) which commemorated the agony of 9/11. Your love for NYC seems complete now that you are finally a resident in the city.

A: New York has a magic and really feels like home. I was staying in Brooklyn when 9/11 happened and sensed this amazing energy and atmosphere; it felt as though I had been personally attacked.

Q. Thinking of “The Other Side of the Ocean” from your new release “Twelve” (In + Out Records), does it irk you that few in America will know about your country of birth?

A: Well the other side of the ocean really refers to my former home in the Netherlands, but I find more people in America know where Azerbaijan is than they do in Europe. I studied at the conservatory in Baku, the city where [cellist Mstislav] Rostropovich and [pianist Bella] Davidovich were born. Then I moved to Moscow to prepare for a classical career before traveling to Berklee [College of Music] to study jazz.

Q. How did formative culture around you in Baku play its part?

A: My family were all doctors, politicians, engineers — but all musical. My grandmother had absolute pitch and played six instruments. Music is important in every household. Then there is the ancient Mugam folk tradition, which precedes classical Indian music. I hear traces of that in music from Senegal, the use of blue tones and improvisation.

Q. “Sneaky Seagulls” from “Twelve” is onomatopoeic in its rhythmic pecking. Is there uncredited electronics afoot also?

A: It reminds me of feeding noisy birds by the Caspian Sea as a child. There are no electronics, [husband] Bart [Platteau] is playing the C flute instead of his mellower B-flat instrument, so it stands out alongside Marc Mommas’ deliberately squeaky soprano saxophone.

Q. As a master of writing for mid-size ensembles the trio format is new for you.

A: I have been repeatedly asked to do it. Joe Sanders is an amazing bassist, melodic but with an incredible harmonic understanding. [Drummer] Justin Brown has great technique but it’s not in the way; it’s just a tool he paints with beautifully. It’ll be a different program for me, new arrangements of standards, pieces from previous CDs and a version of “Chicago Split” named for a good friend in the city.

Michael Jackson is a Sun-Times
free-lance writer.

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