Live review

Tigran Hamasyan (2020 EFG LJF)

Tigran Hamasyan – solo set
(14 November 2020. EFG London Jazz Festival. Review from Livestream by Alison Bentley)

Tigran Hamasyan (Publicity Photo)

“It’s been a while since I’ve played a concert,” said Armenian pianist/composer Tigran Hamasyan. The intimacy of the dark studio in California, where he recorded a solo set specially for the Festival, seemed to suit him, as if he was communing with himself. Novelist Jonathan Franzen famously wrote blindfolded in the dark to keep his mind “free of all cliches.” As Hamasyan played his intensely original music, drawing on jazz and Armenian folk, he seemed to be responding to The Call Within – the title of his latest album.

He opened with synth sounds, creating a sense of mystery and imagination. His electronic wizardry contrasted with the simple upright piano, its innards and constantly moving hammers on view, as open and unguarded as  the pianist himself. He told us later that the piece was Leninagone, dedicated to the survivors of the 1988 earthquake in his home town. (Soviet name Leninakan) Sombre bass chords and dazzling chromatic runs developed into a pensive folk melody, which he whistled like a pan pipe. A newly-premiered unnamed piece began with a simple 6/8 piano theme, texture added by his delicate falsetto wordless singing- then he delved into darker jazz harmonies.

“A little bit of jazz” followed: Monk’s Off Minor and the standard Out of Nowhere. Both revealed his pianistic brilliance. (He won the Thelonious Monk international piano competition aged only 18). An insistent left hand note gave extra tension to Monk’s tune, and an extraordinary solo brought boppy rhythmic precision, Eastern trills, a touch of stride and a Ligeti- like complexity. Out of Nowhere was played freely, with darkly lovely new chords, and improvised with a glittering Monkish glee.

Tigran Hamasyan (Screenshot)

A melancholy waltz mixed jazz with a little Satie, Chopin and Armenian folk rhythms. Sometimes the two hands seemed to be playing in different time signatures, till an improvisation developed to make the spine tingle. A new section with chanting over tremolo piano chords strongly recalled Abdullah Ibrahim’s African Piano- but taken from the Armenian tradition.

Another piece had dramatic variety- from breath-taking key changes to romantic light legato. Heavy percussive giants’ footsteps had a rock forcefulness- Hamasyan grew up listening to Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, and his new album features a heavy metal guitarist. But just as the intensity reached full strength, it dropped back into delicate patterns. Slow chords tolled to accompany his chanting, both earthy and ethereal.

Hamasyan reminded us for a while that there is a world elsewhere- vividly musical, meditative and dramatic.

LINK: Page on EFG London Jazz Festival website

Categories: Live review

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