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Armen Donelian: Consummate Musician

R.J. DeLuke By

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"Grand Ideas was a very special period in my life," he reflects carefully. "I really don't talk too much about it." He had a serious injury as a result of losing his temper, he admits. So severe, he nearly lost his left thumb. "There was a severed tendon and two severed nerves. Several lacerations to my hands. I quit playing piano for three months while everything healed. Even after the physical healing was complete, there was inner healing that took a lot longer. I was traumatized by the whole experience. It was shortly after that that I moved from New York [City] to New Jersey for 12 years, before I moved to upstate New York.

"When I was in New Jersey I was part of a meditation group there. I was already doing yoga and was interested in that stuff. Meditation helped me a lot. Helped me to process that trauma and the feelings that came with it. I learned a lot about my stuff in that period. Looking more inwardly, while at the same time continuing to play and teach. Grand Ideas music kind of came out of that meditation period. That's why it's kind of quiet. Not too pushy or forceful."

Solo, trio, duet, quintet, Donelian is always remarkable, coaxing a rich sound out of the keyboard and painting pictures that make an impression.

"As to which I prefer, I love playing solo piano," he says. "In fact, I play quite a bit of solo piano on the early recording, A Reverie (Sunnyside), back in 1984. Solo piano is something I was fascinated with; how to be complete within myself at the piano. It's one of the biggest challenges for a pianist or for any musician for that matter. But people expect it of piano players because the nature of the instrument is such. But I also love playing trio and I love playing in (larger) groups. The experience of playing in bands for me goes all the way back to high school and playing with guitar players, playing that Dixieland music. In college I was in an eight-piece rock band. We played Blood, Sweat & Tears kind of arrangements. Playing in Mongo's band, the Billy Harper quintet. I loved the power of playing in a band like that. Though I can honestly say I never liked playing in a big band. That's why, though I had many opportunities to do so, I never gravitated in that direction."

"I think, when it comes down to a trio, at this stage in my life having gone through those experiences, trio playing is my favorite kind of playing. It has all of them. I can play solo. I can play duo with the bass. I can play trio and we can really blast. It's a little bit more challenging because it's not as loud as a band with trumpet and sax out front. So sometimes the audience won't pay as much attention. But on the other hand, I find the dynamic and emotional range of the trio to give me a lot of opportunities for self expression."

Donelian, a soft-spoken yet focused man, opines, "I'm not sure where it's all leading. I just take one project at a time and focus in on that. I felt it was time for me to do this group album because it had been since 1990 and The Wayfarer (Sunnyside). And I felt I had something new to say."

He's enjoying living in upstate New York—"I love living close to nature"—away from, yet close enough to New York City and New Jersey where he enjoys his teaching gigs. "I'm back and forth every week. There's a good rhythm to my life. It also gives me time to play gigs in the northeast and overseas. It's a balance between all of them."

Selected Discography

Armen Donelian, Leapfrog (Sunnyside, 2011)

Armen Donelian, Oasis (Sunnyside, 2008)

Armen Donelian, Grand Ideas, Vol. 3: Full Moon Music (Sunnyside, 2005)

Armen Donelian, Quartet Language (Playscape Recordings, 2003)

Armen Donelian, Grand Ideas, Vol. 1: Wave (Sunnyside, 2005)

Armen Donelian, Quartet Language (Playscape Recordings, 2002)

Armen Donelian, The Wayfarer (Sunnyside, 1990)

Armen Donelian, Secrets (Sunnyside, 1989)

Armen Donelian, Stargazer (Atlas, 1981)

Billy Harper, The Billy Harper Quintet (Poljazz, 1980)

Roy Ayers, Step Into Our Life (Polydor, 1977)

Mongo Santamaria, Sofrito (Vaya/Fanya, 1976)

Photo Credits

Page 1: Stephen Donelian

Pages 2, : David Lee

Page 3: Roger Siegrist

Page 4: Judy Benvenuti

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