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Amina Figarova: Setting stories to music

Visit pianist/composer Amina Figarova’s website and you’ll find the words "Music is a natural not a national language." This must include jazz, or Figarova’s own life is hard to explain. How else could a girl born in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan grow up trained as a classical musician, start a career as a classical concert pianist, and then, in her mid-20s, switch to jazz?

"My mother loved jazz, and she was always telling me, 'You have that in you,' " Figarova said by phone earlier this week from her home in the Netherlands. "I was writing and playing classical music, so I never took seriously what she was saying. Every time I went to a jazz concert or festival, I was wishing I could do it but never felt I could.

"Later, I decided to try for the fun of it. And once I tried it, it felt like I fell into a waterfall. It took me away."

Figarova’s latest CD, "Above the Clouds" (Munich Records, 2008), includes a loving inscription to her mother, Zemfira, who died in 2006. Figarova will play music from that recording of all-original compositions — tuneful, tasteful, sophisticated jazz — when she makes her Dakota debut on Thursday, Sept. 3.

This will be Figarova’s first performance at the Dakota but her second in Minneapolis. Last summer, she played a beautiful set from the main stage of the Twin Cities Jazz Festival on Peavey Plaza. It was as memorable for her as it was for those of us who were there.

At the festival, Figarova and her sextet followed the upbeat, crowd-pleasing Moore by Four. Figarova had planned to play music from "September Suite," her response to the events of 9/11. (She was visiting friends in Brooklyn when the planes hit the towers; later she saw people who had walked home across the Brooklyn Bridge, covered in dust.) Suddenly, she wasn’t so sure. Moore by Four had left the audience happy and energized. The vibe didn’t seem right for the haunting, nakedly emotional themes of the suite.

"Of course, the band was ready for anything," she remembers. "So we started with music from another CD ['Come Escape with Me']. Then, after the second piece, I felt the energy from the audience and I told the guys, 'We’re going to "September Suite.” ’ No time for discussion on stage; they just followed me.

"It was a most striking experience. The people were so still, so quiet, so open-minded and accepting. I was really touched that I could perform that music open-air, especially after the group that came before. I could not imagine doing this anywhere else.”

Figarova’s music is full of stories, like a musical diary of her life. "It’s the language I speak most," she explains. "You know how when you did something, or something happens, you want to tell it to your best friend or your family? You want to tell them how it feels. Music is the best way for me to do that."

On "Above the Clouds," the title song for her new CD, she tells how it feels to be on a plane enjoying the view. At the time, she was listening to music by Minnesota-born composer Maria Schneider, and you can hear Schneider’s influence in this joyous, spacious piece.

Like Schneider, who leads a jazz orchestra, Figarova has gone beyond the more usual (and economical) jazz trio. She performs and records with a sextet that includes her multi-flutist husband, Bart Platteau, along with trumpet and saxophone. Recently she has experimented with a nonet including trombone and a second sax.

"I always loved big band," she says. "As a pianist, you don’t have a space in a big band. You just have charts to read. So I decided to create a band that would have the power of a big band, where I and the rest of the players would have space."

She brings to the Dakota her working sextet, a band she has grown close to in the studio and on the road. Most members are from the Netherlands, where Figarova moved in 1988, three years before the Soviet Union was officially dissolved. She later studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston and the prestigious Thelonious Monk Jazz Colony in Aspen, Colo.

"Playing together with the same band is very important to me," she says. "I believe in the chemistry, the energy. We are so connected, and there are so many things going on at every concert we play. I hear often from the audience that it’s like being invited into our home. Our audience becomes part of our conversation."

The Amina Figarova Sextet performs on Thursday, Sept. 3, 7 p.m., at the Dakota ($15). The sextet includes Figarova on piano, Bart Platteau on flutes, Erne Hammes on trumpet, Mark Mommaas on tenor saxophone, Jeroen Vierdag on bass, and Chris "Buckshot" Strik on drums. Watch a video here of a live performance in Amsterdam featuring three of the musicians who will be at the Dakota.

Pamela Espeland keeps a Twin Cities live jazz calendar and blogs about jazz at Bebopified. She tweets about jazz on Twitter.

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