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Armen Donelian: Consummate Musician

Armen Donelian: Consummate Musician
R.J. DeLuke By

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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 [Rollins] like I wanted to hand it back to him. He turned to me and said, 'Play. Play.'
Consistency of excellence is an extraordinary thing in music—particularly improvised music, where taking chances, however satisfying, can be risky. The daredevil on the tightrope might amaze onlookers. But he also might fall.

61 year-old pianist Armen Donelian, a New York City native who now lives in upstate New York but who has traveled the globe as a jazz artist and as Fulbright scholar, is one of those improvising musicians. He's played all kinds of music during his lifetime. He studied classical music intensely and he allows other influences to seep in to his creativity. But he's attracted to jazz, leading his own groups of various sizes and playing with the likes of saxophonist Sonny Rollins, percussionist Mongo Santamaria and trumpeter Chet Baker.

His recordings have a noteworthy consistency. His first album as a leader, Stargazer (Atlas, 1981), was a trio outing with outstanding musicians (bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Billy Hart), but the pianist has set a high standard throughout his discography for improvisation, expression and execution. Donelian has the chops to execute ideas and the passion to reach for them. He explores paths that he finds interesting on Leapfrog (Sunnyside, 2011), a strong quintet date featuring guitarist Mike Moreno and longtime saxophone colleague Marc Mommaas. It's a collection of original tunes, thoughtfully melded. Lyrical and intriguing. Another fine creation.

Donelian has been creating and discovering on his own since about the age of four. His family had a beat-up old upright piano in the basement and it drew the young lad's interest. "I used to go down there and pound out things by ear and make things up. Creating was a part of playing, for me. I didn't start by reading music. I started by playing by ear and expressing myself through music. This, of course, is central to jazz—in fact, all kinds of music—the impetus for self-expression."

Some of Donelian's work might come from his classical side, like his solo disk Full Moon (Sunnyside, 2005), the third volume in his Grand Ideas series. There might even be snippets from his Armenian heritage contained therein. But overall, Donelian is a jazz improviser. Concepts and ideas may come from anywhere, but where this exceptional, yet somewhat unheralded artist lives is in the world of jazz.

"There's that swing feel of jazz. There's the blues feel of jazz. Then there's the improvisation. The ability to express oneself spontaneously, without regard for written notes," says Donelian. "I love to compose. And I see composition and improvisation as two sides of the same coin. It's been said many times before that improvisation is spontaneous composition. Composition is improvisation set down on paper, if you think of it that way. In many cases it's the same process that is required, but with improvisation one needs the technical ability to execute those musical thoughts immediately. That's what sets it apart from classical music.

"What makes jazz, for me, the most important music? It would have to be the ability to express myself. Jazz has become a worldwide phenomenon. This music that we would say is truly rooted in the Afro-American experience in America has become world music. Many international artists have made significant contributions to the jazz continuum by combining their nationalistic or ethnic heritage with jazz. Brazilian music, jazz from Japan, from practically every country in the world. I found I was able to combine jazz with my Armenian background in some ways and develop my voice in that way."

Seeing his interest in the piano, Donelian's parents got him into formal lessons as a young boy. That process added to his imaginative impulses. He then trained for 12 years as a concert pianist at the Westchester Conservatory of Music in White Plains, NY. "Finer details," he says. "Classical training was a huge plus for me. Without it I would not have become the musician that I am. I wouldn't have had the tools, the ability to read, the piano technique, the sensitivity to musical interpretation and expression that's so critical for classical music. On top of it, being exposed to the great music of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, right through to the 20th century. That level of music quality gave me insight into what is possible through music."

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