Tigran Hamasyan
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Tigran Hamasyan

Chaville, Île-de-France, France

Chaville, Île-de-France, France
Band Jazz World


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"An interview with Tigran Hamasyan"

atthew Kassel
Staff Writer
matthew.kassel [at] mail.mcgill.ca

I met Tigran Hamasyan at a Starbucks here in Montreal a few hours before his solo piano show at L’Astral on February 11. Tigran seemed quite composed, and he answered my sometimes-erratic questions with patience and intelligence. In the past few months, I have interviewed several jazz musicians between sets, and I’m always surprised at how composed they are. But this was before the show, and the conversation had a different feel, a different point of reference—no performance to reflect on.

I did see him perform that night, though. And, as I realized after, the one thing I regret not mentioning in our conversation is Indian music—specifically, what he thinks about the tablas.

If you’ve listened to his album, “A Fable,” then you probably heard some soft, rhythmic whooshing in the background of some songs. It sounds a little like a dampened cajon. But it’s his mouth, and he’s sort of using it to accentuate the rhythmic drive of his playing. (It’s known as bol in Indian music, and tabla players use it to mimic what they are playing with their hands.)

Tigran, classically trained, is a virtuoso. And virtuosity can be dangerous. But he handles it well. He played some burning lines in the performance I saw, and they didn’t feel forced or unnecessary. He skillfully let chords hang in the air as they diffused into silence.

There’s something refreshing about solo piano performances—for the pianist, I would imagine, and for the audience. On tour, all the pianist needs is himself. He’s not going to travel with a grand piano, and he has no band members to worry about. As for the audience, all it has is the pianist. And that connection is special.

Matthew Kassel: On your new album [A Fable], I only recognize one title, which is “Someday My Prince Will Come.” Are all of the other songs your own tunes?

Tigran Hamasyan: Well, not all of the tunes.

MK: There’s an Armenian folk song, right?

TH: There’s an Armenian folk song and there’s also a composition [“The Spinners”] by George Ivanovich Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann. Gurdjieff wrote it and Thomas de Hartmann arranged it for piano. And I took that and rearranged it. And also there’s an Armenian, medieval hymn that I arranged, called “Where Are You, Mother?”

MK: I really liked the hymn. It was one of my favorites on the album. It had nice chords—I’m not sure exactly what they were, but I liked them anyway. So why did you choose “Someday My Prince Will Come”?

TH: Thanks. Well, I already had the arrangement for “Someday My Prince Will Come” before I even thought about recording a solo album. And when I started thinking about what I wanted to work the record towards, and what I wanted it to consist of, I wanted to do a standard, a couple of standards. But that arrangement of that song was pretty much the only arrangement that worked with the whole mood of the album. It worked with the rest of the compositions.

MK: What kind of mood would you say that is?

TH: Well, compositionally… I mean, it doesn’t necessarily have to be in a sad mood or a romantic mood. Just compositionally, you can’t play a burning standard next to an Armenian song.

MK: Well, I noticed that you ended “Someday My Prince Will Come” with a sadder chord. And it’s sort of a hopeful song, or maybe not, I’m not really sure.

TH: Yeah, well, it just wouldn’t make sense to end on a major chord. Musically, it didn’t make sense. And my whole idea for this arrangement was to take the most major sounding, happy sounding melody and completely revise it. Well, I’m keeping the melody as it is, but just completely having a dark, opposite harmony.

MK: Like in “The Spinners” as well?

TH: Well, yeah, that’s the Gurdjieff tune. I didn’t change a lot of stuff in that, though. It’s one of my favorite compositions.

MK: It sort of reminded me of Yann Tiersen. Do you know him?

TH: Yann Tiersen… no.

MK: Have you ever seen the movie Amelie?

TH: Yeah.

MK: Well, he did the soundtrack for that, like the piano stuff.

TH: Oh yeah, yeah.

MK: And have you ever sung before? Is this your first time singing in a recorded format?

TH: I actually used to be a singer when I was a child. But then when my voice changed, I didn’t follow up.

MK: You didn’t become a eunuch?

TH: What?

MK: No eunuch for your future [laughs]?

TH: No, I kind of started concentrating on piano. And recently, there’s things that I write where I hear a certain voice singing it. And I feel like I really want to sing, but, you know, it’s still in development. Like there’s things I can do and things I can’t do.

MK: What were you singing in? Armenian?

TH: Yeah, there’s one song [“Longing”] where I’m singing in Armenian. I actually took the lyrics from this really famous poet in Armenia. His name is Hovhannes Tumanyan. He lived in the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth, and I took two of his quatrains that he wrote, you know, four-line phrases, and I put it to this song that I wrote.

MK: Do you like poetry?

TH: I love poetry. I’ve read poetry since I was a kid.

MK: Just Armenian, or…?

TH: Well, mostly, other things, too, you know. But mostly Armenian, just because there’s a lot of incredible Armenian poetry.

MK: You don’t live there anymore, do you?

TH: No, but I visit. I’ve been visiting since 2009.

MK: But you were born there?

TH: Yeah, I was born and raised there until I was sixteen. And I started studying at USC, and then a little bit at the New School in New York.

MK: What year were you?

TH: I haven’t finished yet. I’m on an unofficial break [laughs]. I have like one year to go.

MK: Do you think you’ll finish it?

TH: Yeah, I will. Definitely. I just have to find the right time where I’m not traveling. The great thing about going to school was meeting other talented students and making projects with them and just playing.

MK: Was it like that in Armenia?

TH: It was, but I was in high school, like I finished high school and I left. I was in a classically oriented school.

MK: Are there any jazz schools in Armenia?

TH: There’s a jazz department in a conservatory, but it’s kind of sad. I was really lucky that I had this teacher who went to New York and studied with Barry Harris. And he came back to Armenia and started doing private lessons, and master classes, for free. And it was just like, “I need to teach this thing to people.” So I was lucky to study one year with this guy, and that’s why I really discovered what jazz was.

MK: So when was the first time you played in a group?

TH: Well, like I told you, I used to sing in a big band. And that was my first band experience, around ’97 or ’98.

MK: And what did you sing?

TH: Standards. There’s two songs that I definitely remember: “Dream a Little Dream of Me” and “What a Wonderful World.”

MK: Louis Armstrong has got some pretty popular versions of those songs. In your solo playing, it seems like the rhythm is not necessarily reliably consistent, like it goes back and forth between different pockets of rhythms. Did you have to practice that, or did you just start playing in that sort of way.

TH: You definitely practice—you practice everything. I mean, you have the vision and the desire to find what you want to say, but then it’s all about practicing to make your vision come true.

MK: OK. That’s usually what the answer is.

TH: Oh yeah, definitely. But it’s great to be exposed to a lot of different things so you can feel where you’re going. And of course I’m really lucky to have met some of the musicians that I’ve met. When I was a freshman in college, I did my first record [World Passion] with Ari Hoenig and Francois Moutin and Ben Wendel and that was a life-changing experience.

MK: Yeah? I interviewed Ari Hoenig a couple of months ago. And he has a pretty interesting sense of rhythm.

TH: Yeah. He’s a master of that. So that was pretty big for me. And then after that a lot of things opened up. After that record, I started really getting into exploring things. And it’s an ongoing project.

MK: Do you prefer solo piano?

TH: I can’t say that. No, I like doing projects, dedicating myself to one project for a certain period of time and getting a lot of stuff out of it and really exploring it deeply. And then, of course, you got to change, you know? I love playing with groups as much as I love playing solo. Especially the group that I have right now. For me, it’s really, really special.

MK: What’s that group?

TH: My quintet, with Nate Wood, Sam Minaie, and Wendel and Areni. It’s like a dream band for me.

MK: Do you write the compositions for it?

TH: I write the compositions, and we also do Armenian folk music that I arrange.

MK: Armenian folk music. Do you listen to those folk songs a lot? Were they a big part of your childhood?

TH: Yeah.

MK: Well, I don’t really know much about Armenian folk music, so…Armenia is bordered with Turkey, right? And Azerbaijan and Iran Georgia?

TH: Yeah, you got it.

MK: Have you ever been to those other countries?

TH: I’ve been to Georgia, I’ve been to Turkey. I haven’t been to Iran or Azerbaijan yet. I think I will go to Iran someday.

MK: If I’m not mistaken, historically, there’s a little tension between Armenia and the surrounding countries. Like there’s been lots of war in the past. Did you experience that when you were growing up?

TH: Yeah, well, the history makes the people. And there’s so much influence from that, you know? Music is influenced by that, what kind of history you have, what the music is about. You can like read the history in a song.

MK: Are there similarities between the folk music of Armenia and, say, Turkey?

TH: Certain similarities and influences, but the structure is completely different. Turkic tribes came from Mongolia, so their music got influenced by a lot of Middle Eastern music, especially Persian music, and also Arabic music. But originally Turkish music, that’s where it came from, so it’s closer to Mongolian music and Central Asian music.

MK: What do you think of Arabic music?

TH: What exactly? That’s such a broad question.

MK: Do you listen to it?

TH: Of course, yeah.

MK: Like, when I think of Arabic music, I think of quarter steps, like little, teensy steps.

TH: Yeah, I played with an Arab musician from Tunisia, and I would say the differences are just the melodic structures, the modes, and actually, the use of those quarter tones. Like, Swedish people have quarter tones, too. You know what I mean? So it depends on where you use it and how you use it. And of course the most important thing is the rhythmic structure of the song or the dance, and also the melodic structure.

MK: Do you know Fairuz? Or, Umm Kulthum?

TH: Fairuz? Yeah, and Umm Kulthum, man.

MK: I take Arabic at school, so I try to listen to some of these people and musicians. Speaking of Swedish music, I read that you like Meshuggah. Do you like any other metal bands?

TH: Yeah, I like Tool, I like Apex Theory, and yeah, Meshuggah. But I mean, I like the energy of these bands. But also I’m really into Meshuggah and Tool because of their creativeness. They’re incredible musicians. Rhythmically, it’s insane. They have a concept.

MK: Yeah, I just bought a Meshuggah album this summer. It was my first time buying a metal album, actually.

TH: Well, you shouldn’t think of Meshuggah as metal. I mean, first it might scare you, because of the energy of it. But after you get past that, you know, the style is addictive. But yeah, Meshuggah is from Sweden, but they don’t have anything to do with Swedish folk music, which I love. I mean, that’s my thing. Swedish and Norwegian—the Scandinavian folk music is unbelievable.
- Nextbop

"POW! : Tigran Hamayan, wunderkind or just good ?"

When I started receiving emails from Search & Restore about the upcoming appearance of the Armenian piano whizkid Tigran, I thought it best to approach with extreme caution. Our society is obsessed with prodigies, but especially in jazz, words like "whizkid" often equate to "flame-out." Jazz wunderkinds don't suffer the typical case of too-much, too-soon—even star jazz musicians don't make enough to snort fortunes up their noses—but like overgrown toddlers, they never learn to play well with others. They're all about "me;" but jazz is just too collaborative for a musician to cop that kind of pose. The trajectory is thus: The virtuoso 20-year-old jazz pianist arrives on the scene; a big record company signs him; he tours around Europe with his own band instead of serving an apprenticeship with the masters. His music stagnates into an act.

A few years back, I heard a double bill at Blue Note featuring the precocious pianist Eldar and a far-more-seasoned group with Don Byron and Jason Moran. Eldar played fluently. Byron's Ivey-Divey group dug deep. Their music was as textured and complex as Eldar's was polished and superficial.

I've thought back often on that juxtaposition. Was Eldar merely green? A talent in development? Or was it possible that bland, competent music was all we'd ever get from this greatly hyped pianist? He'd been signed to Sony Classical when he was 17 and, befitting a star, he played (and seems to still play) mostly with his own band. The pianist on the second part of the bill, Jason Moran, also became a star when he was young; but even as a MacArthur "genius" well into his thirties, he spends an awful lot of time working as a sideman. Eldar's career felt like it was probably managed by Sony Classical; Moran's career feels like it's managed by a very quirky man who goes by the name Jason Moran.

Which brings us to Tigran, he of the Eldar-like former-Soviet-republic roots and the preference for one name. (Understandable. Say "Hamasyan" three times fast.) He also shares with Eldar a technique-heavy approach to jazz piano that draws a lot of attention to his dazzling instrumental skill. It's great that Tigran plays so well; but in jazz, a surfeit of virtuosity often masks a paucity of soul. Thankfully, that's not the case with Tigran Hamasyan. On his new record, A Fable, he glides up and down the keyboard like an insufferable show-off, but then he'll hit a chord at an odd angle, cracking the perfection with Monkish jigs and jags. He pulls off two songs based on traditional Armenian melodies; and his propulsive, brooding "A memory that became a dream" reminds me of Guillermo Klein, which, as this blog's archives suggest, I consider very high praise indeed.

Tomorrow night, Tigran will play at LPR, first solo and then in an adventurous quintet featuring Kneebody's Ben Wendel and Nate Wood, musicians well-versed in both a classical approach and the seduction of deep groove. They seem like perfect foils for Tigran, forcing him to move his music beyond pure beauty. Tigran's already a damn fine pianist; I hope he'll keep exploring and become a seriously creative musician.
- www.invertedgarden.com

"Le conteur"

Pour ce premier solo sur le label Verve, Tigran Hamsyan délivre une sublime session poétique ancrée dans ses racines arméniennes. - So Jazz magazine - February 2011

"Brad Mehldau on Tigran Hamasyan"

Tigran Hamasyan

When I first heard this piano player, he was a teenager, and it was hard to tell where he was going to go. “Red Hail” (Plus Loin) is a record I heard on the Web, and the second track — “Red Hail (of Pomegranate Seeds)” — really grabbed me, because it’s got several things going on at once. It has a really wild odd-meter thing, and this distorted, aggressive piano treatment. And the harmony is kind of jazz-fusiony. It makes you want to bang your head, in this really cool way, but also it’s jazz, and he puts it on a record with a lot of melodic songwriting. He’s not making himself the center of the record as an improviser. He’s focused on the writing. It’s nice when you hear someone younger do that, not worrying about having to show all they can do. There’s something original here that excites me and makes me feel like, “Hmm, I haven’t heard that before.” - New York Times


A Fable - Tigran Hamasyan Solo - Universal Classics & Jazz, 2011

Red Hail - Aratta Rebirth - Plus Loin Music, 2008

New Era - Tigran Hamasyan Trio - Plus Loin Music, 2007

World Passion - Tigran Hamasyan - Plus Loin Music, 2004



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 mel