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Tigran Hamasyan – Solo

Waltons World Masters Series

‘Amazing! Now, Tigran, you are my teacher.’
– Herbie Hancock

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When Tuesday, 24 January 2012, 8 pm
Where National Concert Hall, Dublin, John Field Room
Presented by Mintaka Music and Waltons World Masters

A truly original jazz talent, Tigran Hamasyan plays piano like no one else. His strikingly original compositions are not only strongly influenced by the Armenian folk tradition, often using its scales and modalities, but also by the American jazz tradition. Having wowed, at the age of 24, such luminaries as Brad Mehldau, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Trilok Gurtu, Tigran came to Ireland for the first time to perform a thrilling solo concert of astonishing range and depth, including pieces plucked from his Verve/Universal debut, A Fable.

Laurence Mackin
Funk, folk, fairytales and all that jazz

The Irish Times, 24 January 2012

Tigran Hamasyan made his jazz breakthrough at the age of 11 and has earned praise from the likes of Herbie Hancock for his extraordinary talent. Tonight at the NCH he’ll be featuring work that pays homage to his Armenian folk roots.

Child prodigies are nothing new in jazz. They appear in a sudden blaze of technical brilliance, their youth and often innocent audacity making everything else around them seem slightly dull by comparison. Few, though, manage to make the transition into a full, professional career.

Pianist Tigran Hamasyan is of a different hue, and shows every indication of having the staying power to become one of the key players of his generation. He was born in Gyumri, Armenia in 1987, and by the age of three, Hamasyan was already teasing out songs on a piano, fuelled by his father’s love of classic rock. “We’d be playing and singing along to Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Frank Zappa. But then my uncle started showing me some jazz records, like Headhunters and Miles Davis’s 1970s albums, all the funkier stuff, and I slowly went in that direction.”

Hamasyan says his parents weren’t musicians: “Well, not professional, they all went to music school for five or six years” – as if this was the most normal thing in the world. It was his uncle’s influence that planted the seeds of his career, and after studying classical music, he began tearing his way through jazz standards and the offers began to fly in for concerts.

Whatever about his talent, the novelty value was enough of a sell, he admits, and people wanted to hear “this kid that plays jazz at the age of 10”.

Being a child prodigy, though, is a double-edged sword, especially in jazz. They are thrust into the roll of band leader from an early age and, while technically outstanding, they are rarely afforded the time to develop their own sound or voice.

So how has Hamasyan avoided the talent trap? “I tried not to pay attention to that, I heard that a lot. For me, what mattered was developing and I love working. That occupies my mind more than thinking of myself.”

Crucial to his development was the tutelage of Armenian player Vahagn Hayrapetyan, whom his uncle introduced him to. “He is one of the most amazing bebop players alive. He was the most important teacher of my life, who actually made me discover real jazz, what jazz is really about.”

Hamasyan’s breakthrough came when he was just 11, with a performance at the Yerevan Jazz Festival. “Yeah, that was my first big performance. I wasn’t very comfortable in that it’s a very big venue, but at that time I was just a kid,” he recalls. “Music just felt very natural, despite how big the venue. I just loved playing to people.”

When he was 16, Hamasyan moved to Los Angeles with his parents and studied at the University of South California. A series of competition wins, including the top prize at the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition in 2006, cemented his reputation, and earned him praise from such luminaries as Herbie Hancock.

Unusually for someone in his early 20s, Hamasyan has rooted his latest album firmly in the past. A Fable draws deeply on the folk traditions of his native Armenia for its inspiration and textures, with ragas adding an exotic, rhythmic edge to the tracks. Most musicians reject the familiar at the beginning of their career, and it is only later that they start to look locally for inspiration. But Hamasyan seems to have started his journey closer to home.

“I had been avoiding it,” insists Hamasyan. “I discovered my own music through musicians like Jan Garbarek, Keith Jarrett. When I heard these guys for the first time I was just coming out of bebop and [what they were doing with folk music] was a real mystery to me. So I thought, let’s see what my country can do.”

Plenty as it turns out, and Garbarek, something of a specialist in unearthing fresh seams in folk-music mines, has done sterling work with the Hilliard Ensemble to promote and record the work of the great Armenian composer Komitas, whose music Hamasyan was surrounded by from an early age.

“Komitas,” he says a little reverentially. “It’s amazing, I learned it so fast. I was always surrounded by it growing up as a kid . . . it’s in you, it’s in your blood . . . I’m a huge fan of [Garbarek and the Hilliard Ensemble], I was surprised that he didn’t discover that religious music sooner.”

For all the technical brilliance and folk feel to A Fable , there is something innocent in its sound; the songs feel familiar, like a story you heard when you were a child but can’t quite remember the details of. “I get that kind of reaction. When I compose I try to visualise a lot of things. I would say my music has a lot of visual aspects to it.

“The album is strongly influenced by an Armenia poet named Hovhannes Tumanyan. He is an unbelievable poet, most of his works are influenced by folk tales, he incorporates these. But even these works tend to be philosophical. The poetry aspect and the influence of the fables made the album a little more like a poetic storytelling album.”

Now Hamasyan is looking to break a few more moulds with a new band. Will he be surrounding himself with musicians who push him out of his comfort zone? “Absolutely, that’s all that jazz is. It’s about taking new approaches and trying new direction. I clearly remember I got really pushed to my limits for the first time playing with [drummer] Ari Hoenig. It was pretty intense but it was good, it opened doors musically. I understood then that I don’t know anything about rhythm.

“I already know most of the people [for the new band]. I’m still looking though, I want to have a couple of guest artists.” Among those he mentions are a few current collaborators, such as Ben Wendel and Nate Wood, and he also throws drumming phenomenon Mark Giuliani’s name into the mix. First up, though, is his solo piano concert in the John Field Room of the National Concert Hall tonight.

“I’ve never been to Ireland, I’m really excited. I would love to check out some traditional stuff, I haven’t investigated it at all.” So if, at some stage next week, you see a wild-haired Armenian in the middle of a trad session, pounding on the table like it’s a piano, relax: he’s just doing a bit of field research.

Tigran Hamasyan
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