Amina Figarova's 12th album just so happens to be her debut record with In + Out, an independent German label. The Netherlands-based composer and pianist wrote the songs for Twelve in 2011 and transitioned, along with husband and musical partner Bart Platteau (flute), to Queens.
The move benefits the record in a number of ways, namely by providing a slick European take on New York's blue-lit nightlife. The arrangements and compositions are sophisticated and yet utterly ensconced in the brilliant but busy skylines and dusky but diverse curves that comprise the city. The sextet plays right into this creative space with lean, graceful lines and just the right touch of swing.
Thanks to experiences with the Amina Figarova Sextet, including a bowl-them-over set on the main stage at the Newport Jazz Festival and repeat invitations to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the vibe of the group is bold and assertive with Figarova at the wheel. Hers is an attentive leadership; it's never a matter of hogging the spotlight when the band punches through her charts.
One of the knocks on jazz is the focus on the individual, but here the sextet plays together in service of the greater good. The songs flow and Figarova's vision is as clear as the motives of some "Sneaky Seagulls" looking to snip lunches at the beach.
For a sextet to play such personal music in such a passionate way is no easy deed, but Figarova's pieces have managed to sink into a deeper consciousness and the magic resonates intensely as a result.
"NYCST" serves as a nice example. This is a tone poem about taking the subway. The music bounds around as though storming through subway cars and dodging the compelling smells and distressing sights of the New York experience, but the sextet plays it close to the chest with Platteau's flute speaking with Figarova's ivories. Jeroen Vierdag (bass) and Chris "Buckshot" Strik (drums) hone in and lay dense footing.
Then there's "Another Side of the Ocean," another sonic journey that opens with Strik's brushes and features Ernie Hammes (trumpet) pulling at the strings of "My Favourite Things" for just a minute. This unforgettable sense of conversation, of knowing the right thing to say in the right moment, sits at the core of what makes Twelve such a special recording.
One could go on about Figarova's make-it-sound-easy playing, with her tantalizing dynamics and ear for flavour. Or one could gush about Marc Mommaas and his gift for saxophone sorcery, sinking his teeth in as he does with "Make It Happen." One could ramble about the pure skill of Strik's control, too, but the point of Twelve is lost in concentrating on individual undercurrents.
The fact is that this is yet another stunning record from Amina Figarova. The Azerbaijan-born performer is intuitive in her capability to fade to the background and let the group stand as one. This record continues the trend demonstrated on 11 previous outings and, if there's any goodness left in the heart of the darkly thrilling city, at least 11 more.