Amina Figarova’s September Suite Stuns the Crowd
Amina Figarova’s September Suite is one of the important, essential works created in the wake of 9/11. Sunday night at the Metropolitan Room, the jazz pianist and her sextet – Mark Momaas on tenor sax, Bart Platteau on flutes, Ernie Hammes on trumpet and flugelhorn, Roland Guerin on bass and Chris “Buckshot” Strik on drums – reaffirmed that, playing the suite in its entirety. It begins and also ends with a “theme of evil,” a creepy, ominous piano figure, as the Azerbaijan-born Figarova struggled to explain beforehand, “Because it’s there.” The music articulated the omnipresence of evil better than any words could, yet, the suite isn’t actually a narrative of the events of that horrific day. Rather, it’s an “ode to grieving,” as she explained, tracing the emotional reaction to the disaster over the weeks and months that followed, through the eyes of survivors, witnesses and those who lost loved ones.
Figarova’s signature style incorporates pensive European classical motifs into a jazz framework, expansive, imagistic and often sweepingly majestic, sometimes with a droll sense of humor. There’s no humor in this work, but there is plenty of crushing irony, illustrated potently as Guerin frantically walked scales while the band pulled out all the stops to illustrate how “everything’s all right now.” As a portrait of denial, it was cruelly accurate. The rest of the piece is far darker and considerably more direct. The opening passage, Numb, established the distant, macabre ambience created by the smoking hole at Ground Zero. Emptyness featured the band wandering with an aimless anomie over a slinky Guerin pulse punctuated by some phantasmagorical bass chords. A passage titled Photo Album – the living memorializing the dead through images of better days – gave the band a chance to back away from the darkness a little, with soaring, memorable flugelhorn from Hammes, but the “theme of evil” was quick to return.
Trying to Focus was the closest thing to Figarova’s usual cinematic style, quite possibly an attempt on her part to find her pre-9/11 self in the midst of her own somewhat delayed but no less shocked and horror-stricken reaction (she was asleep at her friends’ place in Brooklyn when the first plane hit Tower 2). She’s a generous composer, always giving her band plenty of space to illuminate her themes. At about this point in the suite, Momaas turned in the most viscerally ferocious solo of the night, an endlessly rapidfire series of sixteenth notes, ending it with a shriek and then, turning to Strik with a grin as if to say, “Nobody else is going to top that tonight.” They didn’t, but Hammes’ heavy, mournful lines in tandem with Platteau’s graceful ambience added another layer of gravitas, Strik alternating between swooshy brush work and the powerhouse runs he’s best known for.
Dawn, said Figarova, was not about renewal: it was meant to illustrate the kind of dawn that no one wants to see, reverting to a manic swing before her own gorgeously plaintive solo, as vividly angst-ridden as anything Roger Waters ever wrote. She used that to introduce For Laura, which set guarded optimism and the hope for healing against an omnipresent, noir undercurrent that finally bared its fangs at the end as Figarova went down into the depths to remind everyone that even though it’s been ten years since 9/11, the forces that made it happen are still with us. The crowd, clearly overwhelmed, let Figarova’s last low bass note linger and then fade until it was almost silent before erupting in applause.
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