For his new album, Tigran Hamasyan delivers a dynamic solo piano collection, A Fable, with lyrical songs that range from gracefully refined pieces to energetic experiments with rhythmic and harmonic diversity. One of today’s most vital and original young jazz artists who won the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition in 2006, Tigran finds inspiration from traditional Armenian folk music as well as poetry. With all of the songs featuring Tigran’s inventive arrangements, A Fable features the pianist’s own compositions as well as a wealth of covers, including Armenian melodies and a mystical rendition of the jazz standard, “Someday My Prince Will Come,” as well as music inspired by the poetry of Hovhannes Tumanyan and Gegham Saryan.
“The title of the album came to me because all of the compositions are telling a story,” says the New York-based 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 says, “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 arranged over the past six years. The repertoire consists of mostly personal compositions as well as pieces by other composers that he has 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 says. “This song was inspired by Armenian folk tales as well as fables written by medieval Armenian fabulists such as Vardan Aygektsi and Mkhitar Gosh.”
Most of the other songs on A Fable were composed in recent years while some were written even in the last days before the actual recording. “It has been on my mind for a long time to work on a solo piano repertoire and recording an album,” Tigran says, who enlisted the help of his longtime band mate, drummer Nate Wood, to record, mix and master the album. “The simple idea of performing alone in a room with an acoustic piano has been one of the most natural, and yet challenging ways to express myself musically. It is challenging because of the fact that the only two band members that you can interact with and count on are you and the piano. Yet at the same time the freedom that you have while performing alone is deeply inspiring.”
In some instances on A Fable, Tigran came prepared with specific ideas, while on other occasions he played nonstop in the studio to “see what would happen. That’s how I came up with a few of the songs and improvisation, and developed ideas for overdubs and even some vocal challenges.” The result is a potent jazz recording by an imaginative artist who freely and courageously pursues his own musical vision, not only built on tradition but also infused with his own personality and passion.
The 13-track A Fable opens with the gentle, quiet “Rain Shadows” (Tigran says it’s a mood tune “mixed in a way for the piano to sound like a music box to create a ‘30s-‘40s vibe”) that serves as the introduction to “What the Waves Brought,” that has a dramatic bounce, stutter steps and a whistling sound. “It has two sections,” Tigran says. “This tune reminds me of ocean waves.”
Other originals include the technically challenging but highly melodic “Samsura,” played brightly in 5/8 time, that is introduced by the mysterious “Illusion.” In addition, there’s “A Memory That Became a Dream,” another “mood song” that Tigran wrote the night before going into the studio and recorded with wordless vocals on the first take; and the energetic, tumbling “Carnaval,” also with wordless vocals that follow the drive of Tigran’s pianism.
For the latter, Tigran says, “I didn’t know if this would sound full enough on solo piano because I had an arrangement for it for my quintet that included many layers. But I asked Nate to play percussive rhythms on the music stand and the floor, and I added in the vocals. That’s how it came together in the studio.”
Two songs come by way of Tigran’s love of poetry. The moving piece, “Longing,” is based on two quatrains by the famous Armenian poet Hovhannes Tumanyan who wrote about exiled Armenians in the late 19th and early 20th century who were longing for home. The pensive, dreamy “The Legend of the Moon” is based on 20th century poet Gegham Saryan’s poem that was a favorite of Tigran’s since he was a child.
“The Spinners” is a beautiful Tigran arrangement of mystic/philosopher George Ivanovich Gurdjieff’s piece of music that was a collaboration with pianist/composer Thomas de Hartmann (Keith Jarrett recorded an album of their music, Sacred Hymns, in 1994).
Well-known for melding jazz with traditional Armenian melodies, Tigran again borrows from the rich tradition of his heritage on A Fable. The dance-like “Kakavik (The Little Partridge),” which opens gently then develops into a brisk end, is a 4/4 arrangement of a famous Armenian tune. Included are both its melody and an expansive improvisational section. The collection concludes with the melancholy, searching “Mother, Where Are You?” Says Tigran: “This is one of my favorite songs ever that I knew I wanted to record when I decided to make a solo album. It’s a religious hymn that was arranged for a choir originally. I arranged it to have the melody be intact. It’s the perfect ending tune. It’s an ending with a lot of meaning.”
As for the inclusion of “Someday My Prince Will Come,” composed by Frank Churchill and Larry Morey for the 1937 Walt Disney film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Tigran says he wanted to have one jazz standard in the mix. “I wanted to do a standard but not make it sound like jazz so that it would work better with the context of the album,” he says. “So I experimented with taking a pretty happy song and completely changed the harmonies into a darker setting.”
Previous to his signing by Universal Music Classics & Jazz France, Tigran recorded three albums on European labels as a leader: World Passion (2006), New Era (2008) and Red Hail (2009). He’s been heralded as a jazz revelation by critics who have been impressed by his artistry, with one scribe writing about New Era that “with more seasoning and a calming maturity…Hamasyan is certain to elevate his art to a top tier of jazz and world music expressionism.”
Born in Gyumri, Armenia, in 1987, Tigran grew up in a household that was full of music. When he was just a toddler, he 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 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.
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 he returned to the festival for its second edition in 2000. Along the way he met promoter Stephane Kochoyan, who booked him to play several European festivals.
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 USC, which he attended for two years. Soon he began to win a series of piano competitions, including the top prize at the Monk competition and second place in the 2006 Martial Solal International Jazz Competition in Paris.
At the same time, Tigran began to make contact with such L.A. jazz musicians as Alphonso Johnson and Alan Pasqua, and started gigging with saxophonist Ben Wendel and drummer Wood, who continue to play with him today.
With his prowess established from the Monk honor as well as his small, but impressive catalog, Tigran’s career has been on an upswing. With A Fable, he continues to make another giant stride in the jazz world.
(photo by Vahan Stepanyan)