At twenty-one, pianist Tigran Hamasyan has already done much to launch his name into the world of emergent young lions. He has toured throughout Europe, moving beyond his native Armenia to take prizes in jazz competitions from Moscow to Monaco. And, after winning the prestigious Thelonious Monk Jazz Piano Competition in 2006, he studied in the United States before returning to Paris, where he recorded his first album, New Era.
Hamasyan's predicament is a common one. Like many young jazz musicians releasing their first records, he tries to prove his place in jazz with a few standards, while also working overly hard to showcase his range as a performer through originals and atypical tunes. The result is an album that tries to do too many things, and leaves the listener without a singular sense of the musician's voice.
The suite that opens the album illustrates this problem. The first part, "Homesick," is an energetic romp, carefully structured to let the trio work through a series of hits on the melody, before Hamasyan takes off with an up-tempo solo that hovers over harmonies in the manner of Keith Jarrett's trio work. "Part 2: New Era" borrows a single tumbling fragment of the earlier melody and expands it into a vamp, with Hamasyan doubling on piano and keyboards.
Both sections of the suite would make for nice compositions on their own. But in the end, the relationship between these two parts is so tenuous that one wonders why Hamasyan wanted to draw them together as a suite. And the fact is that the young winner of the Thelonious Monk Jazz Piano Competition can actually perform any of the aesthetics that he samples on New Era. He simply needs to choose which one he will devote himself to for the time being.
Naturally, the most arresting sounds that come off this record are the ones that make the most use of Hamasyan's unique background. In addition to the spate of jazz originals, New Era features two Armenian folk songs. "Aparani Par" and "Zada Es" not only fill out the albumthey give it depth, nuance, and a unique character. This development is largely due to Vardan Grigoryan, who plays a series of Armenian woodwinds on these tracks. The narrow, often oriental sounds of the duduk and the shvi, wailing above the melody on "Aparani Par," are not easily forgotten.
The world of young jazz pianists is disturbingly broad, and it's easy to get lost within it, even if one so clearly exhibits the talents and potential of a Tigran Hamasyan. Where this player will be able to come to the fore is in the characteristics that make him an original. Too many others will release first records with "Well, You Needn't" and "Solar" on them as proof of validity, but a song like "Gypsyology" could be found nowhere else. It has all the gaudy bravado of an Eastern European folk dance, and it's frequently hilarious, with its constantly rising chords and unstoppable backbeat. But it's also devoid of self-consciousness, and it's the kind of song that one can't help but listen to.
If Tigran Hamasyan can bring together his virtuosic understanding of past piano masters with this taste for the folksy and dramatic to create a singular voice out of them, he has a long and exciting career before him.
Tracks: Part 1: Homesick; Part 2: New Era; Leaving Paris; Aparani Par (The Dance Of Aparan); Well, You Needn't; Memories From Hankavan And now; Gypsyology; Zada Es; Solar; Forgotten World.
Personnel: Tigran Hamasyan: piano, keyboards; Francois Moutin: acoustic bass; Louis Moutin: drums; Vardan Grigoryan: duduk (4,8), shvi (4), zurna(8).
Personnel: Tigran Hamasyan: piano and keyboards; Francois Moutin: acoustic bass; Louis Moutin: drums; Vardan Grigoryan: duduk and shvi (4), duduk and zurna(8).