Ghost at the Piano: The Ancient Calling of Tigran Hamasyan
You don't just listen to the songs of this jazz phenom from Gyumri. They listen to you.
June 6, 2017 | by Christopher Atamian
"Thankfully, thrash metal's loss has been jazz's gain." — John Lewis
"Man, all music is folk music. You ain't never heard no horse sing a song, have you?" — Louis Armstrong
Hunched over his grand piano in a full-length black coat, hair long and flowing or staccato short depending on the occasion, Tigran Hamasyan resembles an avian apparition breathing life into his keys. His opening chords reverberate like a rock skimming endlessly on a lake. Suddenly a light moan rises from deep within and he morphs into an entranced tabla player. Surrounded by an atmosphere of grace and mystery, this rhythm-crazed alchemist trills up and down the scales with the speed of rain falling ever more insistently on an ivory rooftop. The rhythms shift from soft glissati to hard rock to elegant classical riffs with endless variations. Single drops turn to furious cascade and back again. Eventually the storm clouds transport you, enchanted, to a dark and light and ancient place.
Tigran Hamasyan performing in Gyumri, Armenia.
In a picture taken in the city of Kars while Hamasyan performed a series of concerts in Western Armenia, the impish pianist tagged: "That is where my family‘s ancestry is from." It’s a simple statement, harking back not only to his roots in pre-genocide Armenia but to his musical foundations as well. Hamasyan was born in 1987 in Gyumri, a city rich in history. Poised near the Turkish border in northern Armenia, the former Alexandropol was once an important stop on the Old Silk Road and continues to be a lively cultural center despite a devastating 1988 earthquake that leveled much of the city to the ground. Hamasyan grew up in a creative environment: his father was a jeweler and his mother a clothing designer. After attending music school in Armenia early on, the young prodigy has led a somewhat peripatetic life, moving with his family to Yerevan and then to Los Angeles — before recently returning to live in the Armenian capital. By the age of 16, he had already been awarded the critic's prize as a pianist at the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival, the first of many honors. Since then he has toured the world and recorded non-stop. An Ancient Observer, released in March as his eighth studio album, marks his greatest, most expansive work to date.
I encountered Hamasyan for the first time, years ago, at some type of "immersive" performance of his music in a Brooklyn church. It was far from love at first sound. "Church music with synthesizers," I recall thinking. "What's the big to do?" For all his virtuosity, I failed to see what separated Hamasyan from the scores of other talented musicians around the world who had already achieved success melding folk, jazz, and rock. I was dead wrong. But it wasn't until Hamasyan’s 2015 release of Mockroot that I came to realize it.
Listen to song for Melan and Rafik.
The stylistic mix of Mockroot is dizzying. Take the second track: Song for Melan and Rafik. It starts off with a woman chanting and others answering her notes in vocal counterpoint. The air is at first cerebral, postmodern in its repeated phrasings (think Philip Glass), and yet it's not long before it produces a feeling of the sacred, like a deconstructed Gregorian chant. Hamasyan’s use of sax, drums, keyboard and bass accompanists prevents the piece from becoming monotonous or repetitive. The album’s last two tracks The Grid and Out of The Grid are even more eclectic, mixing elements of bebop — soulful and fun — with chants and other sounds that Middle and Near Easterners immediately jive with as part of their musical DNA. The use of guttural djent-like moans recalls Arabic-Andalusian wailing and the blood-curling cries of Fado, as if you are front seat and center at someone’s descent into mourning. The effect is dramatic, even suspenseful. It’s impossible to listen to Hamasyan casually. You're always on edge waiting for the next change of tempo or style, the addition of a new theme, the acceleration into a new emotion, high or low.
"I suppose it's jazz in the sense that I'm improvising," Tigran Hamasyan says of his work. "But the language I try to use when I'm improvising is not bebop but Armenian folk music...You go to parts of rural Armenia and you see people singing and harmonising spontaneously. It's amazing, like watching the birth of music itself." Call his music whatever you will, Hamasyan is no longer just a rising star in the jazz world: performing in front of sold-out audiences worldwide, he's received praise from such eminences as Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock, who stated: "Tigran, you’re my teacher now." Part of what moves me — an atheist, a fan of Ani De Franco and bad 80's English electronica — about Hamasyan's songs is the sense that they are an organic part of the artist from Gyumri. They are the food he eats, the air he breathes. Unlike so much experimental jazz, they never feel like disembodied or disengaged intellectual tryouts.
This might also be a limitation. Distinct as he is in the genres and traditions he blends, I don’t think Hamasyan has yet achieved greatness. He has certainly not reached the fantastic heights of jazz revolution that Miles Davis did in 1969 with Bitch's Brew, and he may well never pave the way for future movements, as have Soft Machine, Mahavishnu Orchestra or Jean-Luc Ponty. How much that matters, of course, is debatable. New movements are often motivated by an obsession with purity — an ideal that has come to seem more dangerous than true.
Still, I think a lack of tension limits Luys i Luso (Light from Light), the album Hamasyan released later in 2015 as a follow-up to Mockroot on the heels of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. Billed as an update of 1,500 years of Armenian religious music and history, the album's tracks are based on works by such Armenian folk and religious masters as Komitas, Pahlavuni, Narekatsi and Shnorhali. The music is grave, sublime — like the original compositions themselves. Moved as I am by such sounds, Hamasyan could have been bolder in adapting them. Instead of changing story or technique, he seems content in Luys i Luso to riff on the classics.
The official music video of Markos and Markos. Animated by Naira Muradyan.
An Ancient Observer (2017, Nonesuch Records) reveals Hamasyan at his best. It is a rich, layered work that builds on his previous compositions and unites myriad styles. The album’s lead track, Markos and Markos, is perhaps the most idiosyncratic of Hamasyan's career. It is based on the playful poem by Zahrad, the late Bolsahay master of minimalist poetry. The music skillfully reproduces the aching beauty and utter banality of two friends, Mark and Mark, who go to the seaside to wash their feet as a shooting star falls to earth. The repetition of the central phrasings interspersed with ominous surges and a lilting, almost baroque melody that recalls Vladimir Cosma's Sentimental Walk, lulls the listener into a romantic reverie, until the composition’s playful ending, which reflects Zahrad's own uniquely lucid sensibility.
Marc and Marc
Went to the seaside
And by the lighthouse
Marc and Marc
(Since both with Marcs)
Washed their feet.
Said Marc to Marc
A shooting star just fell
Marc looked down into the sea
You lied, said
Marc to Marc.
When they had
Dried their feet
A little star was stuck
To Marc’s foot
Though by all accounts the two Marks form a somewhat odd duo, Hamasyan captures the poem's tone and takes you straight to the heart of its wonderfully bizarre narrative. This track is followed immediately by Cave of Rebirth, which guides you on a soul-searing search through time and space that could easily double as the soundtrack to some grand Hollywood sci-fi epic. Here the combination of Hamasyan's flute-like high pitched emanations and his clever, rapid finger work creates an otherworldly atmosphere. Whether it is meant as a metaphor for the act of human survival, or for the Phoenix-like renaissance of Armenian culture, or perhaps simply for the fact that we get up every morning after going to sleep and begin anew, the piece somehow manages to get across an eternal truth. Stylistically, the composition plays with the tetrachordal nature of Armenian folk music, in which the last note of one chord becomes the first note in the one that follows, flowing out endlessly into time and space, as though it could forever give birth to new chords, like a universe unfolding. The actual process of (re)birth seems to unfold in the alternation between light and dark, soft and heavy, and the quickening and lessening tempo that finally, almost imperceptibly, draws to an end.
The title track Ancient Observer reflects Hamasyan's deep rootedness in his culture as well as the age-old interplay between the fleeting and the eternal. As he explains in the album’s liner notes, looking out from his window at the snowy peak of Mt. Ararat every morning: "...(I) observe the magnificence of this sleeping volcanic giant, which has existed for millions of years and was observed by the Ararat Valley Koura-Arax culture down to the present day citizens of the Armenian Republic. I can see and observe the same birds, animals, rivers, and mountains that the craftsman of 4,000 years ago painted on a clay vessel. He was observing the same thing I observe now, and what remains is his or her beautiful work of art." You feel these same emotions when listening to Hamasyan. The best way I can describe it is that you feel like you are floating in outer space looking down at the world somehow — alive but separate. And yes there's something a tiny bit psychedelic about the music, where completely familiar things become weirdly amplified and distorted.
Perhaps centuries from now, using some technology unknown to us, a painter or musician will marvel out of another window at the same mountain, and the same birds and animals. This time instead of a painted clay vessel, he will be watching a beautiful symphony composed by none other than Tigran Hamasyan.
TIGRAN HAMASYAN - COMPLETE DISCOGRAPHY
2006 World Passion (Nocturne)
2007 New Era (Plus Loin Music)
2009 Aratta Rebirth: Red Hail (Plus Loin Music)
2011 A Fable (Verve)
2013 Shadow Theater (Verve)
2015 Mockroot (Nonesuch)
2015 Luis i Luso (ECM)
2017 An Ancient Observer (Nonesuch)
2011 EP No. 1
2014 The Poet
2010 Abu Nawas Rhapsody with Dhafer Youssef (Jazzland)
2011 Lines Of Oppression with Ari Hoenig (Naive/AH-HA)
2012 Liberetto with Lars Danielsson (The Act Company)
2012 Lobi with Stéphane Galland (Out There/Out Note)
2013 Jazz-Iz-Christ with Serj Tankian, Valeri Tolstov & Tom Duprey (Serjical Strike)
2013 The World Begins Today with Oliver Bogé, Sam Minaie & Jeff Ballard (Naïve Jazz)
2014 Liberetto II with Lars Danielsson (The Act Company)
2015 Ancient Mechanisms with LV (Brownswood Recordings)
2016 Atmosphères with Arve Henriksen, Eivind Aarset, and Jan Bang (ECM)
 Facebook post from July 10, 2015.
 It most notably hosts the popular and critically acclaimed Gyumri Art Biennale.
 Lewis, John (October 24, 2013): "Tigran Hamasyan, the Pianist Giving Jazz an Armenian Twist," The Guardian.
 Bolsahay is the Armenian term for Armenians from Bolis or Istanbul/Constantinople. Zahrad was the pen name for Zareh Yaldicyan (1924- 2007) who was born in the Nişantaşı district of the ancient Byzantine capital. He wrote delightfully bare yet lyrical poems, influenced by classical Persian verse as much as modernist and minimalist experimentation. His 1960 classic Մեծ քաղաքը» (Big City) remains a defining moment in 20th Century Armenian and European poetry.
Christopher Atamian is a native New Yorker. An alumnus of Harvard University, Columbia Business School and USC Film School, he has written and translated seven books and produced several award-winning plays and films, including the 2006 Trouble in Paradise.