"Sketches" is Azerbaijan-born pianist Amina Figarova 11th recording as a leader: she's been creating high-quality modern mainstream jazz since the mid-1990s. A highly skilled soloist with a special knack for imaginative arrangements, Figarova's general lack of recognition in the US has more to do with the fact that she's based in Rotterdam and has played almost exclusively with Dutch musicians. It's a shame she has not garnered more international notice. Her music is a highly appealing sort of all-original acoustic modern jazz that is complex enough to grab more experimental listeners while staying true to the hard-swinging ethic of the Blue Note / Prestige heyday. While influences from Figarova's native Azerbaijan creep in around the edges, particularly in the rhythmic content of her compositions (e.g., 'Train to Rotterdam'), they are not a particular focus here.
Compared to her previous recording, "Above The Clouds," "Sketches" has a mellower, less-urgent feel to it. While definitely not ballads, compositions such as 'Caribou Crossing,' 'Four Steps To...,' 'Back In New Orleans, 'Train To Rotterdam,' and 'Your Room' develop at a leisurely pace, with moderate tempos and a very relaxed feel. Even the more uptempo pieces on "Sketches" seem to lack a frenetic edge, though this may have more to do with the musicians' familiarity with Figarova's compositions. Some mellowness is also imparted by the distinctive instrumentation of her band, which features Bart Flatteau's flute and Ernie Hammes' flugelhorn in the front line along with Marc Mommaas' silky smooth tenor saxophone. Besides having a nice fat sound, each of the horn players are excellent soloists. 'Back In New Orleans' is a case in point – from the title, you'd expect a second-line sort of thing. But the piece is a slow blues with a stunning solo from Mommaas, initially accompanied only by bass before the drums and piano bleed in. Flatteau's flute sparkles on the funky 'Happy Hour,' and Hammes' soloing is excellent throughout. The rhythm section is absolutely first-rate. Drummer Buckshot Strik and bassist Jeroen Vierdag consistently drive the music without overwhelming it – their fine sense of dynamics buoys the title track in the most subtle ways – celebrating the rhythmic intricacies of the head, slowly building the odd-metered ostinato behind Figarova's solo, and nailing down the out chorus before the surprise ending. Finally, there is Figarova's amazing piano work. Classically-trained, her playing is precise but never pat, virtuosic but never florid. Credit that to her sharp inquisitive mind, and dyed-in-the-wool jazz sensibility.
Despite the prevailing relaxed feel on "Sketches," there's absolutely no coasting and Figarova's music is continually engaging. There's a palpable sense of forward momentum throughout "Sketches" - even in its mellowest moments - that reflects the overarching concept behind the music: "What happens on tour, stays on tour...". This is an excellent jazz recording, and one that should break Ms. Figarova's music through to a larger US audience.