At the end of Playing Changes is a list: The 129 Essential Albums of the Twenty-First Century (So Far). I organized these by year, and then alphabetically by artist name. I'll be running them down here, in that order. (No one appears more than once as a leader, though there’s ample overlap in personnel.)
Amina Figarova was born in Baku, the capital city of Azerbaijan, in 1964. She trained there to become a classical pianist, and later enrolled in a conservatory in Rotterdam, where she developed an interest in jazz.
She happened to be playing the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York City the week of September 11, 2001. She was asleep in a Brooklyn apartment as two planes struck the World Trade Center, and eventually emerged to discover survivors who had walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, shellshocked and covered in debris.
Figarova went back to Rotterdam and processed her experience, which eventually bloomed into September Suite. A sextet album steeped in sadness, reflection and the determination to transcend, it's a milestone in her career as well as a standout in the subcategory of art made in the shadow of 9/11. (My personal canon in that vein would include Spike Lee's 25th Hour, Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, Art Spiegelman's In the Shadow of No Towers and Don DeLillo's Falling Man.)
One remarkable thing about September Suite is the emotional resonance of the music, which feels both rooted in this particular tragedy and somehow broader. Figarova structured the album with an implicit parallel to the stages of grief, so that its experience is universal to the human experience. She used musicians not especially known to an American audience, like saxophonist Kurt Van Herck, drummer Chris Strik, and her husband, flutist Bart Platteau.
Like anyone who considered him or herself a New Yorker on that fateful day, I have a deep personal recollection of the mood that engulfed the city for weeks and months afterward. That's one thing I admire about Figarova's approach: she devotes far less time to the destruction itself than she does to its reverberations. One track bears the title "Numb," while another is called "Trying to Focus." (She gets a bit more on-the-nose with "Denial" and "Rage.")
And "Emptyness" is a ballad that suggests her admiration for the compositional language of Wayne Shorter, from around the year of her birth. But the song also communicates a tricky balance of solitude and fortitude — a sense that things can hardly get worse, which means of course that they can only get better.