In its ever-evolving state, jazz invites into its fold imaginative artists who freely and courageously pursue their own vision, not only built on tradition but also infused with their own personality and passion. In the case of pianist/keyboardist Tigran Hamasyan, potent jazz improvisation fuses with the rich folkloric music of his native Armenia. Turning 30 in 2017, he’s one of the most remarkable and distinctive jazz-meets-rock pianists of his generation. Tigran’s fresh sound is marked by an exploration of time signatures beyond 4/4 into 5/4 and 9/8, charged dynamics, the shifting between acoustic and electric modes of expression, all undergirded by an affinity to the grind of heavy metal.
A piano virtuoso with groove power, Tigran’s latest adventurous project is The Ancient Observer, his second solo album and his sophomore recording for Nonesuch. It’s a collection of new original compositions written over the course of the last three to four years—two of which are based on Armenian melodies. Some of the pieces are through composed and completely written out while others are through composed but with ample space for Tigran to improvise. Many include vocals layered into the mix. Like most of his recordings, the influences of the music are manifold, ranging from classical Baroque dance to J-Dilla-esque hip-hop grooves adapted to piano to a few tracks with pedals connected to a synthesizer—though the Armenian influence, which makes his music so uniquely outstanding, is prominent.
Conceptually, The Ancient Observer is a poignant album focusing on the art of observing. “It’s something that humans have been practicing for ages, sometimes even subliminally,” Tigran says. “It is especially interesting now in 2016. It’s the feeling of the ancient eternal and impermanent versus the present day eternal and the impermanent. The intertwining of this ancient with the modern world creates an existential feeling. This album is presenting the observation of the world we live in now and the weight of our history we carry on our shoulders, which is influencing us even if we don’t realize it. This album is the observation of influences and experiences I had.”
Born in Gyumri, Armenia, in 1987, Tigran grew up in a household that was full of music—his father more of a rock fan while his uncle was a huge jazz buff. When he was just a toddler, Tigran gravitated to tape players and the piano instead of regular childhood toys, and by the time he was 3, he was working his way through figuring out songs on piano by the Beatles, Louis Armstrong, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath and Queen. His jazz tastes early on were informed by Miles Davis’s fusion period, and then around the age of 10 when his family moved to Yerevan, he came to discover the classic jazz songbook under the aegis of his teacher Vahag Hayrapetyan, who had studied with Barry Harris. “That’s when I understood what jazz is,” Tigran says. “He taught me about bebop. He was a great teacher.”
Even so, he also began to dive into the deep music well of his country. “When I was 13, I began to understand the rich culture of Armenia,” says Tigran. “I thought, it’s in my blood. I grew up with this incredible music without realizing it. Slowly I began to listen more to the folk music, and it shocked me how much it had been completely ignored. The more tunes I learned—listening to recordings from the Armenian Folk Radio channel—the more I saw the rich potential for merging those with improvised music. That started me on a lifetime journey.”
Along the way, Tigran discovered the variety of Armenian music, including work songs, epic folk songs and war dances that were very different from region to region. “They were different genres of music,” he says. “But they all had a modal basis with two specific constructions: a melodic line and a rhythmic line treated to a very specific ornamentation which adds the spice. And the construct of the melody may have interval jumps and be played high up in the register then dropping down. It’s very specific even though it may be confused for Balkan or Iranian music styles.”
While he studied classical music at an Armenian high school geared toward music studies, Tigran continued to grow on his own as a jazz pianist. He performed at the First International Jazz Festival in Yerevan in 1998, which opened up other performance opportunities, and returned to the festival for its second edition in 2000, where he met Chick Corea, Avishai Cohen, Jeff Ballard and others. He also met promoter Stephane Kochoyan, who booked him to play several European festivals where he met such top-notch jazz stars as Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, John McLaughlin, Joe Zawinul, Danilo Pérez and John Patitucci, among others. Soon after, Tigran began to win a series of piano competitions, including Montreux Jazz Festival’s in 2003 and later in 2006 both the top prize at the prestigious Thelonious Monk Jazz Piano Competition and second place in the Martial Solal International Jazz Competition in Paris.
When he was 16, his parents moved to Los Angeles to give their two children (Tigran’s sister is a painter and sculptor) better artistic opportunities. Tigran stayed in high school for two months before gaining entrance to the University of Southern California, which he attended for two years. At the same time, he began to make contact with such jazz musicians as Alphonso Johnson and Alan Pasqua, and started gigging with saxophonist Ben Wendel and drummer Nate Wood. At the time Tigran also played in the funk band Pinot.
Tigran began his recording career with three albums on the French Plus Loin label as a leader: World Passion (2006), New Era (2008) and Red Hail (2009) and was heralded as a jazz revelation by critics who had been impressed by his artistry, with one scribe writing about New Era that “with more seasoning and a calming maturity not driven by merely showing off, Hamasyan is certain to elevate his art to a top tier of jazz and world music expressionism.” Tigran incorporated Armenian folk instruments into the mix on the first two albums while expanding to a quintet format to include a vocalist for the third. Red Hail opens with the tune “Shoger Jan (Dear Shogher),” which is based on a famous Armenian folk song that was treated to a fired-up romp. It’s also where Areni Agbabian introduced her singing abilities into the mix of Tigran’s fusion vision. “When I wrote all the material for Red Hail, I was hearing a female vocalist,” he said. “I knew an instrument couldn’t execute the depth and color of the melody. I met Areni, who is an Armenian born in L.A., at a show there where she sat in with me on a folk song. It was incredible. I knew I had to get her for the album. She’s not from a jazz background and would never sing a scat. But she knew the Armenian folk repertoire, which is exactly what I needed. She can sing complicated rhythms almost like an instrument versus being a lead vocalist.”
What’s also noteworthy about Red Hail is how much heavy metal influenced some of the tracks. Tigran noted, “Songs like ‘Sybilla’ and ‘Corrupt’ are connected with the same melody, but ‘Corrupt’ goes into the full metal mode while ‘Sybilla’ is really acoustic. ”
After moving to New York for a spell (before returning to Armenia where he still lives full time), Tigran went on a creative roll, getting signed by Universal Jazz in France in 2010, which released A Fable, his first solo album in 2011.
“The title of the album came to me because all of the compositions are telling a story,” said Tigran. “I think people relate to fables because they are simple, yet deep.” As for recording a solo album after three recordings that featured a full band, he said, “A lot of people heard me perform solo concerts and wanted to hear me in this setting.”
Recorded in Paris, A Fable contains compositions that Tigran wrote and inventively arranged over the previous six years. The repertoire consists of mostly personal compositions as well as pieces by other composers that he had arranged. The title track, a Tigran original, was written in Armenia six years ago. “Since then I have been meaning to have it recorded,” he said. “This song was inspired by Armenian folk tales as well as fables written by medieval Armenian fabulists such as Vardan Aygektsi and Mkhitar Gosh.” There’s also music inspired by the poetry of Hovhannes Tumanyan and Gegham Sayyan as well as a mystical rendition of the jazz standard, “Someday My Prince Will Come.” The recording won the Victoires du Jazz (the French equivalent to the Grammy) award for best international production.
Two years later, Tigran returned with Shadow Theater featuring an extended loops-oriented band including a choral section, strings and saxes. With its indie rock energy and electro-acoustic jazz improvisations steeped in Armenian music influences, the recording garnered the 2013 Vilcek Prize for Creative Promise in Contemporary Music. Joining the band on a couple tracks was Jan Bang on live sampling (which set the groundwork for the 2016 ECM Atmosphères project with Norwegian musicians Arve Henriksen on trumpet and Eivind Aarset on guitar).
All About Jazz raved about Shadow Theater, saying, “Hamasyan’s distinctive musicality blends jazz, European classical music and an array of influences like progressive-rock and DJ mixing. Yet the common thread is the inventive way the music balances ethnicity with a modernist verve.”
The year 2015 marked Tigran’s signing with Nonesuch for the critics’ breakthrough album Mockroot, which he describes as: “It’s more like an electro-acoustic Armenian rock trio than a regular jazz trio. Sometimes we sound like a heavy metal band or a dubstep DJ, or like some late 19th century Armenian composers such as Nikoghayos Tigranyan and Komitas, with newer harmonic and rhythmic approaches. It’s all underlined by something that’s very simple, melodic and romantic.”
The recording garnered the 2016 Echo Award (the German Grammy) for best international piano album if the year. Tigran comments, “Mockroot is a sort of longing and nostalgia for a human nature that’s more spiritual, more loving, more together with its roots. There is a sacrifice in it—sacrifice to try to elevate spiritually.”
In that vein, also in 2015, Tigran took on his most ambitious project focused on Armenian Apostolic Church sacred music, stretching stylistically from the 5th century (sharakans by Mesrop Mashtots) to the 20th century (melodies composed by Komitas). On Luys i Luso (translated as “Light From Light”), released on ECM Records, there are the pianist’s arrangements of music from the Armenian Orthodox holy mass, liturgies, hymns, cantos, chants and vespers written for trio and the Yerevan State Chamber Choir conducted by Harutyun Topikyan. “For me it has been a challenge to explore the history of Armenian sacred music and to create polyphonic arrangements for melodies by the modal tradition,” Tigran says. “In these arrangements the piano parts are never written out. There are ideas for the structure of the piano parts, but these are subject to change, bringing freedom and improvisation to notated classical composition and the sacred music tradition. But I understood that with this sacred music that you can’t touch the surface. You have to go deep into it. You have to be careful and have responsibility to the beauty.”
Tigran took the Luys i Luso project on the road for 50 concerts across Europe and the U.S. and videos of some songs also showed up on YouTube. “It was interesting to see people’s reactions to the music,” Tigran says. “Some people may not have understood what was going on or were maybe turned off by religion. But I did gain a classical audience that is used to hearing church music. Sometimes I even had heavy metal fans come to the choir concerts and loved it.” He adds: “Throughout my career, my music has been progressive which has made for interest in hardcore metal bands that recognize I was influenced by heavy rock and metal music. They’ve even asked me to open shows for them. But when I compose I don’t think of metal or classical. I just write music for my longtime trio of Sam Minaie and Arthur Hnatek who play a huge part on how much the sound and the energy of the trio develops.”
Both 2015 recordings garnered Tigran the prestigious 2015 Paul Acket Award at the North Sea Jazz Festival where he accepted the honor and then played a standing-room only trio show that earned the group a standing ovation and rightfully a call for an encore.
While Tigran is a jazz genius on the piano, he’s also become increasingly well regarded as a composer in his eight albums recorded as the sole leader. “I have been composing since I was 9 and composing is a huge part of my daily life and all the records I did from World Passion to An Ancient Observer,” he says. Some of his songs like “Samsara, “The Court Jester,” “Vardavar,” “The Poet,” “Road Song” and “Nairian Odyssey” (the latter from the upcoming album) are prime examples of his compositional prowess. “I think the composing aspect is the reason why people are also covering a lot of my songs on YouTube,” Tigran says. “For me creating a beautiful melody is very important and is the basis, but what you will do with that melody, considering the age of folk music creation is over, is the most important task.”
For his scintillating improvisation, Tigran uses the melodic content based on the Armenian music and creates the harmonic content that instead of being the minor/major classical harmonies is based on Armenian modes applied to the piano. “When I improvise I use the musical vocabulary that comes from Armenia,” he says, “but I learned the art of improvisation through bebop. I think the ability to improvise comes from whether the part of your brain has been activated to this state where you require a huge amount of knowledge and can carry this information in your brain to be executed when needed. It is the balance among knowledge, control and the unexpected new creation.”
In regards to his latest endeavor, 2017’s An Ancient Observer, Tigran took advantage of living in Armenia to compose a beauty—looking at his surroundings and reflecting on the bigger picture. “When I gaze out of my window and see the biblical mountain Ararat with the perpetual snow on its peak with foregrounds of electrical towers with wires cutting the picture, and the satellite dishes melted onto old and modern houses, ancestral smoke coming out of the chimneys and the birds hovering above the trees with occasional airplane trails in the vastness of the sky is the dialogue, the interaction of the God-given ancient nature and our modern human achievements,” he says. “For me it is an awakening and a beautiful feeling to be able to observe the magnificence of this sleeping volcanic giant which has existed for millions of years and was observed by from the Ararat Valley Koura-Arax culture to the present day citizens of the Armenian republic.”
He adds: “I can see and observe the same birds, animals, rivers and mountains that the 4,000-year-old craftsman painted on a clay vessel. The craftsman was observing the same thing I can observe now, and what remains is his or her beautiful work of art.”