Listening to Tigran Hamasyan

“The piano’s world encompasses glass-nerved virtuosi and stomping barrel-housers in fedoras; it is a world of pasture and storm, of perfumed smoke, of liquid mathematics.” (Kenneth Miller)

I’ve blogged previously (1/4/10 about Espen Eriksen’s Trio and also on 16/4/11 about the Esbjörn Svensson Trio in a piece about Magnus Öström) about the relative explosion of piano trios in modern jazz that took place from about 1995 onwards. 

Seems that things have gone a bit quieter of late; Esbjörn has, sadly, left the building whilst the likes of Brad Mehldau have settled in nicely alongside established forces such as Keith Jarrett, John Taylor and Bobo Stenson.

It was, therefore, probably time for a ‘new kid on the block’, so the arrival of the prodigiously-talented Tigran Hamasyan is perhaps opportune.  Hamasyan is just 25 and born in Armenia, though he is now based in the USA.  In appearance he resembles a disshevelled elf after a night on the tiles; a mop of unruly curls evoking memories of Tim Buckley and mid-60’s Dylan.  To date, he has produced 4 studio albums, the most recent of which, ‘A Fable’, is an album of solo pieces issued this year.   He has also lent his distinctive talents to the oud player Dhafer Youssef’s latest quartet.

Returning to Kenneth Miller’s quote at the top of this piece, Hamasyan would definitely come under the ‘glass-nerved virtuosi’ sub-heading.  First and foremost, what you hear on his recordings is his formidable technique.  Now, I barely know one end of a piano from the other, but Hamasyan’s playing on ‘A Fable’ seems to look more to the likes of Liszt, Scriabin and Debussy than it does to Monk, Ellington or Tyner.  The guy plays with steel fingers, producing rolling arpeggios and ostinati that seem to owe far more to the classical tradition than they do to jazz.

Then, there’s the Armenian factor; Hamasyan happily embroiders his playing with the folk-tunes of his ancestral homeland, something that again evokes the Russian classical composers – Borodin, Balakirev, Mussorgsky – who in the 19th century popularised Russian folk music in the same way that Vaughan Williams did in this country.

 ‘A Fable’ is in any case some way from being a by-the-book solo jazz piano outing; Hamasyan adds percussion and also sings on several cuts – either wordless vocals to embroider the melody or, in the case of ‘Longing’, a proper vocal performance of a poem by the Armenian writer Hovhannes Tumanyan.  There is only one bona fide ‘jazz’ tune on ‘A Fable’ and that is ‘Someday my prince will come’,  played as a lilting waltz, but one that looks to Vienna rather than Manhattan.

To hear Hamasyan in a more conventional ‘jazz’ setting, we have to backtrack to his 2007 album, ‘New Era’, recorded in Paris for Nocturne Records and featuring Francois and Louis Moutin (presumably brothers) on double bass and drums respectively.  ‘New Era’ also features a couple of standards – ‘Well you needn’t’ and ‘Solar’ but whilst Hamasyan copes easily with the technical demands of the pieces, he adds little to our understanding of these venerable chestnuts, conspicuously failing to find any nuances  that haven’t been visited a thousand times by players infinitely less adept. Where ‘New Era’ comes to life is on the two overtly Armenian pieces, ‘Zada Es’ and ‘Aparani Par’, both of which feature the Armenian reeds player Vardan Grigoryan on duduk, shvi and zurna.  I only recognise the first of these, as Didier Malherbe has made the duduk a central voice in the music of the Hadouk Trio, but what is beyond doubt is that the addition of these instruments connects Hamasyan with a tradition where he clearly feels more at ease.  Hmmm… Hamasyan playing alongside the Hadouk Trio; that would be a mouthwatering prospect……

The cover of ‘New Era’ with Tigran Hamasyan looking uncannily like either (or both) Rafael & Fabio da Silva of Manchester United

The other Tigran Hamasyan recording I have been listening to is  a French radio broadcast from a jazz club in Dunkerque in June of this year.  This sees him collaborating with 2 fellow travellers on the ‘World Jazz’ expressway, French/Vietnamese guitarist Nguyên Lê and Swedish bassist/cellist Lars Danielsson.  This is clearly a comfortable fit for Hamasyan and it’s to be hoped that someone drags these three into a recording studio sometime soon.  Perhaps someone will tell him that he doesn’t need to throw in the odd jazz standard to prove his worth. 

Sitting on the hard drive right now are two further Hamasyan recordings – a recording he made in California about three years ago with a band called Red Hail.  I’ve dipped into this and it certainly offers an indication of where Hamasyan may be coming from, if not where he’s headed.  ‘Aratta Rebirth’ seems – at a first and cursory listening – to be a mixture of Armenian folk songs, heavy metal and even Prog Rock, with Hamasyan deploying a full arsenal of electric keyboards alongside his grand piano, with  Areni Agabian’s vocalising, scorching electric guitar from Sam Minaie and thoughtful reed-playing from Ben Wendel.

Yet to be investigated is ‘World Passion’, Hamasyan’s first album, again on Nocturne and recorded with a quartet involving Wendel on saxophones back in 2004. 

From what I’ve heard so far, it would seem that Tigran Hamasyan is almost too talented and eclectic for his own good.  In less than 10 years, he has already explored a wide variety of genres and has seemingly yet to find his own distinctive ‘voice’.  When he does, I suspect that the retreads of old post-bop standards will be consigned to the dustbin of history – and, when he does, I suspect that the results will be spectacular.

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