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Armen Donelian: Consummate Musician

R.J. DeLuke By

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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."


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