By age 25, Donelian found himself the band of Mongo Santamaria, his first big break and first major touring experience. "I'd never played in a Latin band before working with Mongo. Yet because I had a good classical background and good knowledge of jazz, good reading, I was able to learn the art of Afro-Cuban playing pretty quickly. Working with Mongo was one of the best experiences of my life, in terms of my rhythmic development. It's like going to graduate school for rhythm," he fondly recalls. "It taught me how to really listen to the different percussion players in a Latin rhythm section. Focus my attention. Not get overwhelmed. It taught me what to listen for. I had to put my notes with theirs and fit in so we could all sound smooth and coherent."
He also played on a hit record, "Sofrito," which was a new experience. "It was a Grammy
nominee and all over the radio. "At the beginning of 'Sofrito' I had this solo piano introduction, leading up to the entry of the rhythm section. When I heard myself (on the radio), I said 'That's me!'"
While on tour, Donelian would run into other musicians. He networked and his name got around the scene more. "Backstage I'd be hanging out with other musicians. I was rubbing elbows with people I hadn't met before and only heard about. Then come back to New York and have sessions together. Tom Harrell
was in my band briefly. Joe Lovano
I met and we've done a little playing. John Scofield
is another one. A number of people. So many great musicians I was able to meet and play with at that stage in my life. My middle and late 20s.
He also intersected with the path of Sonny Rollins.
" That was a whole other level," he recounts. "Sonny's an awe-inspiring figure in the history of music, both in terms of his accomplishments as well as his musical prowess. Just being on the stage with him was ... when I think of it I'm kind of shocked that I played with him. He was very nice to me and very encouraging. My first gig with him was in Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania. Sonny opened the set and played a solo, maybe 10 or 15 minutes. Then the guitarist took a solo and it came my turn to take a solo. I played maybe two or three choruses and then I kind of got shy. I turned to Sonny like I wanted to hand it back to him. He turned to me and said, 'Play. Play.' He was very encouraging that way. He knew I could play, but I didn't. I will always be grateful to him for that kind of encouragement."
In December 2011, recently returned from receiving the honor of NEA Jazz Master, Rollins recalled Donelian's work. "I enjoyed playing with him a lot. I haven't played with him in a long time, but as I remember he was a person that whatever I needed him to do, to help me play ... he was perfect. He's a consummate musician. We had some nice times together. Armen is a great musician and he's a wonderful person besides that."
Donelian, like so many musicians, was deeply affected by the great saxophonist. "There was one situation," Donelian says. "I think it was Paul's Mall in Boston. The power went out onstage because of a water leak somewhere in the building. They had to move all the sound equipment from one location to another, then re-plug the wires. During that interim, there was no power to the stage. I was playing electric piano with electric bass and guitar. We all dropped out. It was just Sonny and the drummer for a while. After a while, [Rollins] signaled to him to stop playing. He kept playing by himself for about 15-20 minutes. This was on a Friday night. There were maybe 400-500 people in the house. They were all going nuts. It was an awesome display. Then the power came back on, everybody jumped in, and the people went crazy. I'll never forget that."
From there, another important relationship was with saxophonist Billy Harper
's band. "That was a great experience as well. When I played with Billy, I felt I was in a situation where the terms were more peer-to-peer. It wasn't disciple-to-master, like with Sonny. Although Billy is an awesome player. I always respect and love his playing. But with him I was more capable of holding my own after having the Sonny experience. Billy's another one who loves long, extended solos. I found myself really digging into those opportunities, developing as a player, maturing."
His solo recording career moved along as well, and critics were giving high marks for this pianist who seemed to be under the radar. Work opportunities were steady and he has even penned instructional books. In the late 1990s, Donelian started a series of solo recordings under the umbrella of Grand Ideas
. And grand they were. Reflective. Poignant. Melancholy in parts, particularly on Vol. 1: Wave