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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."

Donelian had two older brothers and a younger sister also into music. His oldest brother played clarinet. "He was involved in a Dixieland band led by Arthur Ryerson, a guitarist and arranger. (Ryerson) had played with Louis Armstrong, Paul Whiteman and all kinds of people in the '30s, '40s and '50s. My brother played in a band comprised of Arthur Ryerson's children who were our peers in high school. I heard them play and I was knocked out. That was the music I wanted to play because it was swinging so much and there was improvisation, yet it was quite sophisticated. Eventually, I got to play in that band, later in my teens. So, after my classical studies with Michael Pollon, my classical teacher, Ryerson was probably the next most important musical influence on me in my youth."

At home, his father played Middle Eastern recordings. "Being of Armenian descent was a unique treasure, musically speaking," he says. "I became exposed not only to Armenian music, but Greek, Turkish, all kinds of music. Different time signatures. Different scales. Quarter tones. Tunings. A different aesthetic. We grew up in a multicultural household before that word even came in wide usage. My mom cooked Armenian foods one day. Another day we'd have hotdogs and hamburgers." His other brother played guitar and was into folk music, like The Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary. Eventually, Donelian was also tinkering with guitar and played in a blues band. "I was involved in a choir at school. The organ at church. All that stuff was in the mix. I'm not sure how much of that directly translates to the music I play now, but I would say I would not be the musician I am now if I hadn't been exposed to all that music and those musical traditions."

But the roads lead to jazz improvisation and his attraction to swing that he first experienced hearing the Ryerson band. "I felt at home there. I don't know how to explain it. I just felt that was the vibration for me. That was the level of vibration, the wavelength. There were other wavelengths I was capable of vibrating at. I can vibrate at the classical vibration or the folk music vibration. But I'd say blues and jazz. Because I love the blues."

That calling has taken him around the world as a performer and even teacher. His first break into the big-time jazz was in 1975 with Mongo Santamaria's Afro-Cuban jazz octet.. His career took off from there. He has taught at the Manhattan School of Music and now teaches at the New School in New York city and at William Patterson College in New Jersey, where Mulgrew Miller is the director of jazz studies. He's all music and all about improvisation, whether playing in his fine groups or solo. His interpretation of Beatles music, for example, on Grand Ideas, Vol. 1: Wave (Sunnyside, 2005), is exquisite, both harmonically and melodically. He grabs more emotion from tunes like "I Will" and "Here, There and Everywhere" with his inventions than Lennon and McCartney ever did. The entire disk is rife with beautiful takes on standards. Again, consistently outstanding.

For Leapfrog, Donelian was thinking of new harmonies and new approaches to rhythm, springing from his previous work. "The urge to make a record for me kind of builds up," he explains. "It's something I deliberate over, over a period of months and even years. I think my relationship with Mark [Mommaas] is pivotal in the development of this album. I don't want to say it was just Mark's input. But we have a longstanding relationship. He's brought so much to my compositions in the way that he plays and interprets them. Both by the content of his music and the spirit of how he plays. It's that spirit that I wanted to infuse in the whole group. I've had a number of groups over the years with Mark with various musicians, various drummers, bass players. Trumpet. Guitar. Finally, we settled on this combination of musicians in 2009. As the personnel of the band began to coalesce, I felt more and more ready to make a record."

"The central organizing factor was always the compositions. I was looking for the right band to play the music I had written. So for me, it's an expression of my work as a player, as well as a composer," says the pianist. Another key component, different from his last quintet recordings, was a guitarist. Moreno was also a student of his at the New School who impressed his teacher. The same way Moreno has impressed many since, becoming one of the go-to guitarists in the Big Apple.

"I like his voice. The quality he brings with his guitar is very melodic, incisive and rhythmic," Donelian says. "Mike's playing doesn't hit you in the face, like a trumpet does. It blends more easily with the sound of the piano. That's what I was looking for."

Mommaas was also a student of Donelian's, at the Manhattan School, and the two have been close since, playing and recording together. Donelian has known the album's bassist, Dean Johnson,for decades, while young drummer Tyshawn Sorey rounds out the band. "I feel, compositionally, that the music on Leapfrog is an extension of the earlier quintet music. I sit back a little bit. I don't feature myself on the frontline as a pianist. The piano is there in the melody, but Mike and I double the melodic line in many places. Mark is playing more of a second melody and a harmonization role. That's the way I arranged the earlier albums, but with the trumpet on the lead line. I kind of had the guitar taking over the function of the trumpet."



He adds, "Of course, the role of the drummer was very important in the earlier albums, Bill Stewart being very important. In this one, Tyshawn is equally important ... They're playing is very different. They both have the capability to drive a band forcefully when needed, but also color the band with brush work and fine detail work that's very sensitive and almost compositional. I think of them as musicians who happen to play drums, rather than as drummers. [Sorey] is an incredible talent. He plays drums, piano, trombone. He composes. I love his high-power way of playing, yet very sensitive and dynamic. He can go from a hush to a roar. There are not many drummers that cover that same kind of dynamic range. Also stylistic range. He can play just about any style of music and sound great."
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