Jazz Notes: Profile of Tigran Hamasyan—The Best Jazz Pianist You’ve Never Heard Of…But Should
By Dan Ouellette, ZEALnyc Senior Editor, March 1, 2017
Born in Gyumri, Armenia, in 1987, Tigran Hamasyan 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.”
The pianist/keyboardist/sometime vocalist is one of jazz’s most dynamic artists who flies under the radar of most jazz aficionados. They don’t know what they’re missing. His potent jazz improvisation fuses with the rich folkloric music of his native Armenia. The soon-to-be 30-year-old piano virtuoso drives with groove power. Tigran’s latest adventurous project is this year’s An Ancient Observer, his second solo album, his eighth overall as a sole leader, and his sophomore recording for Nonesuch Records. He’ll be performing solo piano music from that recording at Subculture.
An Ancient Observer is a poignant album focusing on the art of observation “of the world we live in now and the weight of our history we carry on our shoulders that is influencing us even if we don’t realize it,” Tigran says. “This album is the observation of influences and experiences I had.”
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. 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.
“The melodic content is very Armenian,” Tigran says. “So is the harmonic content which instead of being the minor/major classical harmonies is based on Armenian modes applied to the piano.”
As for the thematic impulse of An Ancient Observer, Tigran says, “It’s something that humans have been practicing for ages, sometimes even subliminally. It is especially interesting now. 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.”
After living in Los Angles and New York, Tigran moved back home to take advantage of living there to let the beauty and cuture inspire his music. “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.
“I can see and observe the same birds, animals, rivers and mountains that the 4,000-year-old craftsman painted on a clay vessel,” he says. “The craftsman was observing the same thing I can observe now, and what remains is his or her beautiful work of art.”
An Ancient Observer is yet another chapter of Tigran’s recordings that tap the deep music well of his country. “When I was 13, I began to understand the rich culture of Armenia,” he says. “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 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.”
So far, Tigran’s career has been impressive, including several significant accolades. He won the top piano award at the 2013 Montreux Jazz Festival and the grand prize at the 2006 Thelonious Monk Jazz Piano Competition. In 2015, Tigran garnered the prestigious Paul Acket Award at the North Sea Jazz Festival and the following year earned the Echo Award (the German Grammy) for best international piano album of the year for his superb Nonesuch debut recording Mockroot. Tigran has toured internationally for a fan bass that ranges from adventurous jazz aficionados to progressive hardcore metal listeners.
Cover photo: Tigran Hamasyan; photo: courtesy of the artist.