HOPE: De-Dah. RODGERS-HART: I Didn’t Know What Time it Was. KERN-HAMMERSTEIN: All the Things You Are.* PARKER: Big Foot.* HANIGHEN-JENKINS-MERCER: When a Woman Loves a Man. ROMBERG-HAMMERSTEIN: Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise. STORDAHL-WESTON-CAHN: I Should Care.+ AKINMUSIRE-BROWN-BREWER-HAMASYAN: Invasion During an Operetta.+ RASKIN-MERCER: Laura / +Ambrose Akinmusire, tpt; *Joshua Redman, a-sax; Tigran Hamasyan, pno; Matt Brewer, bs; Justin Brown, dm. / Nonesuch 075597911466, also available for free streaming on Bandcamp and on YouTube starting HERE.
Another name new to me is that of Armenian-American pianist Tigran Hamasyan who, according to Wikipedia, generally plays songs strongly influenced by the folk music of his native country. Here, however, is an album comprised mostly of American jazz and pop standards. The two jazz standards are Elmo Hope’s De-Dah and Charlie Parker’s Big Foot. The one original on this release is titles Invasion During an Operetta. On this release, too, his piano trio is augmented on two tracks by trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and, on two others, by alto saxist Joshua Redman. In the publicity blurb for this release, Hamasyan is quoted as saying that ““With this record, I really wanted to apply different techniques and ideas I’ve developed over the years to a repertoire that I finally had an opportunity to re-visit… I love these compositions and melodies so much that, to me, it’s like Armenian folk music.”
I really liked Hamasyan’s piano style, which has a “heavy” sound to it reminiscent of American bop pianists of the 1950s and ‘60s like Horace Silver, although his musical approach is more harmonically sophisticated—sort of a cross between Silver and Jaki Byard (there’s a name you don’t hear very often nowadays). He also uses modal harmonies in his improvisations, a nod to his Armenian roots. His playing is technically secure without being simply flashy, too; he has something to say and isn’t shy about projecting it. His rhythm section of bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Justin Brown is likewise technically secure but more interested in playing unusual, contrary rhythms behind Hamasyan than of simply showing off their chops.
One can hear Hamasyan’s creative approach to these pieces clearly in his rewriting of Rodgers and Hart’s old standard I Didn’t Know What Time it Was, a piece that, even within its original configuration, had a certain modal quality about it although Hamasyan brings this out much more strongly in his arrangement. And he again fractures the time in an unusual and unpredictable manner, his solo here being surprisingly sparse although both his note choices and rhythms are constantly surprising and unorthodox. Interestingly, at one point during this performance, Brewer tosses in a few notes of the original melody in the midst of Hamasyan’s improvisation. (I was less impressed, however, by the cop-out ending in which he just has the engineer fade out.)
Joshua Redman guest stars first on the equally interesting arrangement of All the Things You Are, with its “floated” rhythm. This is created by having the bass and drums sit out on this track, thus when the leader solos he, too, sounds as if he is floating in space. Parker’s Big Foot, too, opens with no rhythm section, but they quickly come in after just a few bars, playing an asymmetric rhythm while Redman and Hamasyan establish a stronger bop beat; then the rhythm really swings behind the saxist as he takes off on a great solo, although sounding more like Phil Woods than like Bird himself. This one is less complex as a re-writing but no less effective, with the leader simply comping behind Redman as he plays two choruses before turning it over to the pianist. Here Hamasyan plays in a more linear fashion, channeling some of the great bop pianists of the past. There is some nice rhythmic complexity in the chorus with Redman playing stiff figures above the roiling rhythm.
One would scarcely recognize When a Woman Loves a Man from Hamasyan’s rewriting of it: he really changes so much around that it becomes a different composition. Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise is also unrecognizable at first with its roiling, out-of-tempo and somewhat out-of-tonality introduction, and just barely recognizable in its stop-start theme statement. Do I detect just a shade of Thelonious Monk in Hamasyan’s chord choices? Come to think of it, he might have included his reworking of one of several Monk pieces on this CD as well. By keeping the underlying harmonies so modal—yes, one might even say Armenian-sounding—Hamasyan gives an entirely different slant to this overworked chestnut, creating an almost bittersweet feeling throughout. He ends it on an unresolved chord.
One could say as much about his reworked version of I Should Care, on which Akinmusire’s haunting trumpet plays an integral part, again, in the setting and sustaining of a somewhat melancholy mood. The trumpeter even squeaks a few notes out using a half-valve (or cocked valve) effect as the late Rex Stewart perfected during his time with Duke Ellington. The apparent group piece Invasion During an Operetta is a much more modern, spacey sort of piece, difficult to describe but very intriguing to hear, with the trumpeter playing even freakier figures on this one.
By contrast with his relaxed versions of other tunes, Hamasyan’s vision of Laura is surprisingly upbeat, again with the rhythmic rug pulled out from under it as he adds beats to each phrase of the song in order to distend the musical line and incorporate his own vision. Here, Hamasyan is back into playing in his Silver-Byard mode, and quite effectively, too.
This is a simply wonderful album. Would that a couple of dozen so-called “visionary” and “genre-stretching” jazz artists out there, whose CDs reveal no such thing, would listen to it and get a few ideas on how really visionary arrangements should sound. A superb release!
—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley
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