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Armen Donelian: Consummate Musician

R.J. DeLuke By

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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."

The music is excellent. Moreno's sound fits well with the ideas Donelian put to paper. Guitar, sax and piano superbly investigate the melodies and come up with intriguing statements that mark the album for repeated listens. Donelian knows the difference between improvisation and composition. The latter allows a musician to consider possibilities and combinations before committing to them. Musicians have long said leaving "mistakes" on live jazz records is the truest way to hear the music, but Donelian has fine-tuned his view of those instances. "You've got to live with your mistakes," he says of a performance or live recording, but "I've come now to a different realization of what mistakes are, or what they are not. I don't think of them as mistakes anymore, but really just interesting digressions from my musical intention. Thinking of them as mistakes adds a level of self-judgment to the music-making process that doesn't really help the performer to express himself or herself. So rather than thinking of them as mistakes, they're just little blips. Actually, Miles Davis and others have turned 'mistakes' into musical gems.

"A lot of thought went into the mixing," Donelian says. "It's an aspect of music production that's very often not talked about too much. Mostly it's about, 'Do we want the saxophone to be a little louder here? Or the guitar softer there?' I spent a lot of time with the mix on this because I wanted to get a sound that featured everyone and at the same time created a group sound where everyone was equal in a certain way."

Donelian seems to approach everything in such a thoughtful way. He enjoys investigating new areas. A graduate of Columbia University where he studied music history, theory, and composition, he went on to study more with pianist Richie Beirach, which immersed him more into improvisation and composition. He had been playing blues guitar, and some keyboard, in small group around New York City, but with Beirach, "I became more serious about the piano and decided I wanted to focus all my energy there. I put my guitars down and started focusing on the piano much more seriously than I had been in my college years."

In college, he listened to the music of Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, John Coltrane and Miles Davis. "I really loved the Miles band in the '60s. Those were my early modern jazz influences. That's when I met Richie, Bud Powell, Bill Evans also entered the picture. I also immersed myself in contemporary classical music in my 20s. I listened to Bartók, Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel, people like that. Because of the harmonic content of their music."


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