Amina Figarova, Sketches (BMCD / Munich Records)
Netherlands-based, Azerbaijan-born pianist and composer Amina Figerova had the early crowd in the palms of her hands last month at the CareFusion Newport Jazz Festival for good reason. She’s a skilled player and musical conceptualist. This CD, her 12th since her 1994 debut, Attraction, is a gem. She uses her stable, globetrotting sextet, co-led with her husband, flute player Bart Platteau, to showcase her musical vision.
Many of her multi-faceted pieces carry a compositional and lush arranging depth reminiscent of Maria Schneider. They are just delivered in a more intimate context than the sweep of a full jazz orchestra. (It would be interesting to hear the best of Figarova’s pieces expanded to that context one day. Determining which ones are best would be tough – because they all are very different and very fine.) My personal favorites among the 13 travels-inspired pieces on this outing: the uptempo “Sketches” (showcasing the front line of Platteau, trumpeter Ernie Hammes and tenor saxophonist Marc Mommaas), the more pensive “Caribou Crossing,” the groove-centric “WHOTSOT” and “Back in New Orleans,” and ponderous/wistful “Your room.” By the way, WHOTSOT is an acronym for “what happens on tour stays on tour.
The Cookers, Warriors (Jazz Legacy Productions)
This is a must for the many lovers of pure hard bop. This all-star collective includes saxophonists Craig Handy (alto plus flute) and Billy Harper (tenor), trumpeters Eddie Henderson and David Weiss, pianist George Cables, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Billy Hart. What are the prime ingredients? Intensity, passion and great beauty. Cables, Harper and McBee provided most of the material, which also includes late trumpeter Freddie Hubbard’s “The Core.” (The band is named after named after Hubbard’s live album Night of the Cookers.) My favorites: this team’s version of the Harper classic “Priestess” and McBee’s “U-Phoria.” But it’s all good. Make that very, very fine. I hope they add many more volumes in the next few years.
Birdie Leigh, In A Silky Mood (self-produced)
Silky. Sultry. Husky. Versatile. These are some of the elements that shine through Los Angeles-based Birdie Leigh’s jazz recording debut. She’s very new to my ears, but a most welcome addition given the performances on In a Silky Mood. The session mostly tackle vintage vocal swing and Western swing, with a few Latin and blues tracks to change things up. Leigh sounds like a mystery, but insists she’s not. She performs occasional club dates in and around L.A., as well as a few private parties with her band, Birdie Leigh and her Blue Boys. Mystery? Perhaps. Intrigue, most definitely. Maybe she’ll share story or two when you run into her.
From Patsy Cline to Bobby Gentry (the latter is an interesting remake of “Ode to Billie Jo”), she’s got a terrific way of turning non-jazz standards into jazzy vehicles. My favorites: “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” her playful take on Benny Carter’s “Cow Cow Boogie” (with lyrics by Gene DePaul and Don Ray), “Walkin’ After Midnight,” the blues-drenched “Someday Baby” and the more mainstream “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Her ace band, anchored by producers Kevin Chown (bass) and Avi Sills (drums), also includes Bill Steinway (piano and keys), Jeff Marshall (guitar), Paulie Cerra (saxophones) and Quetzal Guerrero (violin). Check it out.