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The exotic jazz of Tigran Hamasyan - By JEAN-CLAUDE ELIAS, Jordan News



 It only took me 60 seconds to get hooked on the music of Tigran Hamasyan. It happened on my first listening, for if it is certainly outstanding all the time, even though at times the music of this Armenian virtuoso pianist is not easy to play or to listen to. I suppose that my strong inclination toward jazz must have also helped.

With the staggering amount of music composed and recorded in the last 100 years or so, one would think that everything had already been done and that there is no more room for genuinely new material, for innovation, and that all musicians can do now is to cover previous works or stick to improvisation. Hamasyan is here to prove one wrong.

His latest album, released five months ago, is titled StandArt, which is a word play on “standard”. It indeed consists of eight, well-known, jazz standards, revisited by the musician, and one original composition of his.

De-Dah, All the Things You Are, Softly as a Morning Sunrise, and Laura, are among the featured tracks. The performance is perfect in the sense that Hamasyan manages to preserve the intrinsic beauty and spirit of the original composition while blending it with just the right amount of his own contribution, his inspired improvisation.

The sound is pristine, and all instruments participate equally, both in terms of quantity and of quality, which is first-class jazz. The saxophones of Mark Turner and Joshua Redma generate a dream-like music, artfully mixing with the piano, the bass, and the drums.

Inventiveness, good taste, heart-stopping technical skills, virtuosity that is mind-blowing yet used with restraint, and a sound that overall can be qualified as impressionistic, are the trademarks of Hamasyan pianistic and compositional style.

The album, however, is more on the traditional modern jazz side, whereas the preceding one, The Call Within, already two years old, came with more Armenian accents that are not found in StandArt.

The Call Within is still getting millions of airplays on all audio streaming platforms, and the CD sales are well above what the average jazz album usually achieves. Single tracks released before the two albums have been as successful if not more.

What does Hamasyan actually bring to modern jazz? Before anything else, he is, by any measure, an avantgarde pianist and composer.

Whereas the piano would get the focus, understandably, there are rare instances of piano solo tracks throughout all the albums, and the arrangements often involve an entire band.

Inventiveness, good taste, heart-stopping technical skills, virtuosity that is mind-blowing yet used with restraint, and a sound that overall can be qualified as impressionistic, are the trademarks of Hamasyan pianistic and compositional style.

It is hard to describe the music in a few words, for the elements are many and vary from piece to piece. Tsirani Tsar (apricot tree) comes with an exquisite flavor of Armenian melodies channeled over a subtle, gentle, and slow piano part, accompanied by lyrical phrases played on a wind instrument, most likely a duduk. It is composed by Armenian musicologist Komitas Vardapet. There is no show-off here, only emotions, feelings.

The piece is taken from an album titled Atmosphères, released by renowned jazz label ECM in 2016, where the pianist is accompanied, among others, by Norwegian jazz guitar star Eivind Aarset, who I had the pleasure to cover back in 2010. The style is “ambient music”, and the producer said that most of the music was improvised.

Levitation 21, track one on The Call Within, is a frank departure from Tsirani Tsar. Here it is pure modern jazz and absolute pianistic virtuosity that dominate the composition.

This is no jazz for the faint-hearted, but for those who like it strong, fast, and complex. I listened to the piece repeatedly, finding a different interest each time. The first time it was the technical skills that blew me away, the second time made me appreciate more the originality of the composition, whereas the third time conjured up some traits found in other pianists’ performances.

The radical change of the sonic space from track to tracks is in itself a very attractive trait of Hamasyan’s work.

At a Post-Historic Seashore is a short, minimalist composition; 37 Newlyweds is arranged with an unusual but very interesting choral part; Old Maps has the subtlety and harmonic changes typically found in the compositions of the classical French master Claude Debussy. This is particularly noticeable in the delicately arpeggiated passages that sound like trickling rain.

As for New Maps, the last track on the album, I still am not sure if I like it or not. Perhaps what really speaks to me are the parts where the drums are not playing and that remind me of American Bill Evans’ music.

Debussy is not the only pianist that Hamasyan reminds me of at times. Depending on the tracks, I thought I was hearing a bit of Brazilian Eliane Elias, French Sophia Domancich, and Azerbaijani Aziza Mustafa, to name a few of the jazz greats. I would assume that Hamasyan, consciously or unconsciously, has been influenced by all of them.

As for the arrangements and the very contemporary, ethereal sound of certain pieces, celebrated Norwegian Jan Garbarek must also have inspired the Armenian artist.

Outside the scope of the album, the composition titled Lilac, which was released in 2015, is a good example of the kind of refined pieces that Hamasyan is able to create and play. This is a superb piano-solo number that also bears moving Oriental-Armenian-Caucasian folk music accents, perfectly rendered over a rather slow tempo, and smartly inserted in the arrangements. I tend to like the slow pieces of the pianist more than the impressive and technically challenging ones.

To define Hamasyan’s music in one sentence, I would respectfully quote Irish freelance music journalist Jay Honeycomb: “This is jazz for people who like to sit at the edge of their seats.”

I wish to thank Adnan Kévin Cohic for introducing me to Hamasyan’s beautiful music.

Jean-Claude Elias is a computer engineer and a classically trained pianist and guitarist. He has been regularly writing IT articles, reviewing music albums, and covering concerts for more than 30 years.


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