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Tigran Hamasyan: Mockroot
by George Graham
(Nonesuch Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 4/1/2015)
Throughout this review series, I have gone on about how I am most attracted to music that defies ready categories. These days, there are a lot of genres and sub-genres to choose from. But regardless of the style, in the commercial pop world, predictability and imitation are considered the keys to success. Even outside the commercial music industry, most music follows the rules of the styles at hand. So I find it refreshing when artists mix previously disparate styles, sometimes just for the eclectic fun of it, and sometimes in an effort to try to map new territory.
Even in the eclectic music world that we are fortunate enough to be able to inhabit on this radio program, it has been a while since something has come along that struck me as being as absolutely fascinating and yet artistically satisfying as the album we have this week. It’s by Armenian-born pianist Tigran Hamasyan, and it’s called Mockroot.
While generally considered a jazz pianist, 27-year old Tigran Hamsyan has an interesting background. Born in Armenia near the Turkish border in 1987, Hamasyan was not the product of a musical family, but his parents heard him playing tunes on the piano and arranged for music lessons. He studied classical music in a conservatory setting and by age 11 was considered something of a classical prodigy. Meanwhile, around home, he was listening to his father’s collection of heavy metal and classic rock records by Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Queen . In addition to his classical piano, he also took up singing jazz with a big band. By age 13, he was absorbing Armenian folk music with its complex rhythms and interesting distinctive tonalities. At age 16, he won the Montreaux Jazz Festival piano competition, and decided to relocate with his family to Los Angeles, where they joined a thriving Armenian community there. At 18, he won the Thelonious Monk piano competition, and released his debut album called World Passion in 2006. He has become a part of the jazz scene around Los Angeles, but according to his record label’s publicity biography, he went back to Armenia and its capital Yerevan to teach a master class and ended up staying for the better part of a year living with his grandmother.
Hamasyan’s past original music has been influenced by Armenian folk tunes and their rhythmically complex and yet often melancholy sound. He frequently works with a female vocalist singing wordlessly, and often does the same himself. This was reflected in his previous US releases, which nevertheless maintained a jazzy sound. For the new album, Hamasyan also gets rather electric in sound, being reminiscent of jazz-rock fusion and progressive rock at times while bringing in the Armenian folk influence. The result is quite fascinating with his sophisticated, compositions often showing exceptionally complex rhythms – one piece has a 35-beat meter -- while running from the high energy of the art rockers to melancholy introspective pieces. It all goes beyond his previous work.
The main group on this Paris-recorded album is a trio with Sam Minaie on electric bass and Arthur Hnatek on drums. Hamasyan is quoted as saying “This album is kind of sad and melancholic... The songs represent a critique of our world and humans as they are now, more materialistic and less spiritual.” That kind of mood is reflected in the distinctive tonality of the Armenian-folk music. Nevertheless, the music can get as high in energy as almost any art-rock band. Hamasyan mainly plays piano, but he is not afraid to take up synthesizer and get into some of the noisy-rock aspects of the alternative scene. In the CD packaging, Hamasyan also includes a series of poems in Armenian and otherwise, that he said inspired him in his compositions.
Leading off is a piece called To Love one of the pieces inspired by poetry, in this case a 19th century Armenia poet who died at an early age. It’s a mainly solo piece with Tamasyan doing a falsetto vocal with a faint ambiance in the background. <<>>
Song for Melan and Rafic is a dedicated to Tamasyan’s grandparents. It has a seemingly more conventional jazz group with bass, drums and sax, with Areni Agbobian on the wordless vocals with Tamasyan. Despite its instrumentation, it’s anything but ordinary musically. Tamasyan says that the time signature is 42/16 with its complex interweaving figures. It’s an excellent example of this album’s remarkably imaginative and interesting music. <<>>
A piece called Kars1 is the first of two compositions based on legends around the Armenian town of Kars, in this case what Tamasian describes as a “tragic love story.” The melancholy tonality is added to some subtle electronics that could come out of the techno scene. <<>>
A track called Double Faced is rather reminiscent of a mix of progressive rock and the kind of rock-influenced piano music of The Bad Plus. Takasyan says the title came from the musical structure superimposing a 4 and 5-beat meter. <<>> Tamasyan gets electric in one of the piece’s sections. <<>>
Tamasyan shows his classical influence on a composition called Lilac which was originally written for a film though it was not used. It was inspired by a lilac tree in his yard when he was growing up. He cites Debussey and Ravel as influences in the piece. <<>>
Most of the compositions on the album have their quieter moments, but Entertain Me is up to full speed all the way through. It’s about wanting ever more in entertainment and how that can lead to people and performers doing terrible things. Tamasyan says that basic the time signature is 35/16. It raises the progressive rock concept to a new level of complexity. <<>>
One of the most attractive pieces on the album is called The Apple Orchard of Saghmosavanq inspired by a 12th Century Armenian monastery near Yerevan. The piece captures the melancholy Eastern textures of the music <<>> then builds to a high electric level. <<>>
The final two titles on the CD are The Grid followed by Out of the Grid. The grid of the title is a reference to the rhythmic grid of the complex figure of 5,5,7,5,5,5. Again, it’s pretty heady stuff, but thoroughly engaging. <<>>
Amenian-American pianist and composer Tigran Hamsyan’s new CD Mockroot is quite a remarkable recording. It’s a thoroughly original stylistic blend of Armenian folk music, with its complex rhythms and interesting tonalities, with the high energy level of the progressive rock scene, and an undercurrent of jazz. Tamasyan is a virtuosic player who brings to life his often downright astonishing compositions. It can be jaw-dropping at times, and yet quite appealing. The music can get into rock-band energy levels and then go into a hauntingly beautiful melody based on Armenian folk music. The instrumental textures with the frequent wordless vocals are also highly distinctive.
Our grade for sound quality is a solid “A.” There’s some sonic manipulation in the studio, but it’s well-handled. The instruments are well-recorded with good clarity and warmth, and the dynamic range of the recording is considerably better than the contemporary average, with not too much volume compression.
Tigran Hamasyan’s music on his new album is not only virtuosic, imaginative and thoroughly original, it’s also impressively uncategorizable. And that makes Mockroot a one of those truly remarkable albums that only comes along rarely.
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