Twelve’s the Charm for Amina Figarova
At this point in time, pianist Amina Figarova’s enduring masterpiece is her September Suite, a harrowing reflection written in the wake of 9/11 that remains one of the most haunting albums of the last couple of decades. Her new album Twelve is her best, most focused and most impactful release since then – intentionally or not, it’s interesting how the number twelve would follow 9/11 in terms of the high points of her prolific career. This album is considerably quieter and more pensive than her previous one, Sketches, a bustling, colorful, loosely thematic series of travelogues. Figarova’s always had a knack for translucent horn arrangements, and the ones here are among her richest. Although throughout her career she has been generous in giving herself and her band plenty of room for soloing, this album is remarkable for its absence of wasted notes and dedication to purpose. The chemistry in her longtime band – husband and multi-flutist Bart Platteau, trumpeter Ernie Hammes, saxophonist Mark Mommaas, bassist Jeroen Vierdag and drummer Chris “Buckshot” Strik – is comfortably familiar. The compositions are as cinematic as she’s ever written. Maybe trading her old Rotterdam haunts for a new life in New York is part of the deal – whatever the case, let’s hope she stays.
It’s interesting how New York State would inspire her to evoke Brazil on the opening track, NYCST, dancing syncopation from Platteau and Mommaas sandwiching Figarova’s precise pointillisms. The second track, Another Side of the Ocean is classic Figarova, pensive and acerbic and then growing more lush, Hammes’ gentle swirls adding brightness, Platteau’s flute dancing cautiously over its elegantly shifting pulse. The most gripping track here might be Sneaky Seagulls, which juxtaposes an abrasive sax/trumpet interlude that’s more Hitchcockian than beachy against Keystone Kops swing, and then a potently aching alto solo from Mommaas. Likewise, tense harmonies between sax and flute lead into an eerily fluttering Figarova solo on a quieter seaside scene, Shut Eyes, Sea Waves: the uneasy, atmospheric backdrop behind Figarova’s spacious, unsettled solo out has a gently resolute vividness worthy of Gil Evans.
By contrast, On the Go is another one of Figarova’s travelogues, a latin theme as Joe Jackson might do it, lit up by a cleverly wry trumpet solo, Platteau then taking it back to brisk, matter-of-fact insistence. The most vividly lyrical of all the songs here is Isabelle, a portrait of Vierdag’s girlfriend, who comes across as stunningly perceptive, beautiful and easily wounded – and on guard against that. Then the band goes back to brisk, just-short-of-breathless swing with the Midtown Manhattan-flavored Make It Happen. The title track – in 12/8 meter, just to hammer home the numerological concept – develops a pensive neoromantic piano theme backed by a gorgeously burnished horn chart, expansively explored by flute and then piano.
The samba-flavored New Birth has yet another richly harmonized horn arrangement, casually steady postbop incisions from Mommaas and a lively Figarova solo. Then they get quiet again with Morning Pace and its allusions to blues and spirituals – Vierdag’s bass mingling with and then peering up through Figarova’s solo is another especially choice moment here. A portrait of a favorite grandmother who comes across as more impish than stern, Leila is full of latin tinges and eventually a wry approximation of a conga break. The album ends on a potently uneasy note with Maria’s Request – Figarova will go to great lengths to make her fans happy, and this is a classic example. Platteau’s soulful, balmy bass flute leads it up over Figarova’s nocturnal phrasing, the chords of the bass taking it out with a bracing absence of resolution. All these diversely picturesque pieces come together with an effortlessness that soft-pedals the fact that this is simply one of the most consistently enjoyable and attractive jazz albums of 2012. It’s out on the German In + Out label.
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