Yessaï Karapetian (Ronnie Scott’s, 21 April, and jazzahead! showcase)

“The heart and soul of the music comes from an experience of people rising out of oppression. Many cultures, including the culture of Armenia, share that experience. Hopefully our music can resonate in people’s hearts and bring them together,” says French-Armenian pianist Yessaï Karapetian.

Yessaï Karapetian. Photo credit Laetitia Dumez

Born in Yerevan in 1993 into a musical family and raised in Marseille,  Karapetian started learning Armenian traditional dances and studying the fipple flute (shvi) at the age of five with an older cousin. He first enrolled at the Marseille Conservatory as a classical piano student. It was during rides in his uncle’s car in Marseille that Yessaï discovered the sounds of Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock and Weather Report’s Joe Zawinul, before moving on to the Paris Conservatoire (CNSMD).

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While spending a year on a full scholarship at Berklee doing a Masters, he was awarded both pianist and composer of the year in the 2020 Downbeat Student Awards. A year later he was awarded the European Letter One Rising Star Award. His debut album on the KYUDO label was well reviewed: “Overwhelming energy, power, but also invention, powerful music with multiple influences.” (Jazz’halo, Belgium).. As French critic Vincent Bessieres wrote of him: “Yessaï is no longer at the stage of having ‘promise’. He is making it a reality on stage.”

He will be at Ronnie Scott’s on 21 April 2023 with a new quintet featuring mostly Armenian musicians: brother Marc Karapetian on bass (he is in Tigran Hamasyan’s touring band),  Norayr Gapoyan on duduk and Avag Margaryan on blul, plus French drummer David Paycha. A few days later on 29 April he has a jazzahead showcase in Bremen. The summer is busy too: as a result of the French Talents Adami Jazz Award, he was commissioned to create a special trio with Marc Karapetian on bass and his mentor Terri Lyne Carrington on drums. Together, they will perform at the three of the big French festivals: Jazz Sous les Pommiers, Jazz à Vienne and Jazz à la Villette in Paris. Interview by John Stevenson.

LondonJazz News: When did you first become involved with music and how did you discover jazz?

Yessaï Karapetian: It’s a family thing. First my parents were both accomplished musicians. When I was 5, I started Armenian traditional dance and the study of an Armenian shepherd flute (shvi) with an older cousin. I kept studying with him for the next 10 years. Simultaneously, I was learning classical piano with my brother at Marseille’s conservatory. We discovered Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Weather Report and Keith Jarrett in my uncle’s car around the same years. I considered playing jazz myself much later.

LJN:  How did studying jazz at Berklee with American jazz musicians contrast with studying music at the Paris Conservatoire?

YK: With the turns we have been taking as a global society, everybody is more and more kind of doing the same thing. Contrast tends to disappear. I think that jazz education has generated a lot of academic players. It’s alright, music has been commodified and schools try to teach us how to make money out of it. At the end of the day it’s a personal journey. You can learn from anything and anybody if you have that flame inside of you. I’m grateful I’ve been able to protect it until today. In both institutions, I’ve been blessed to spend time with teachers and mentors that recognized it and that inspired me beyond the systems.

Album Cover for “Yessai”

LJN: The music on the album ‘Yessai’ has a cinematic feel. Alongside a propulsive rock influence, the chord choices and ‘Seth’ and ‘Her, The Unknown’ suggest moments and memories of locations and experiences.  Have you considered composing music for film or/and the theatre?

YK: It is definitely something I would love to do alongside video game music. It’s not impossible that I’ll collaborate on a US TV show this year… let’s see how it unfolds.

LJN: UK audiences can look forward to your performance at Ronnie Scott’s this month. Have you played in the UK before?

YK: My very first time was indeed last summer at Love Supreme, with my own band. It was very special. There were so many people already at the soundcheck, that we turned it into the performance. I had been inspired by Herbie Hancock doing the same thing in Paris a few days earlier, as we were opening for his band. They are in the music at all times and by all means, whether they are on stage or off stage, with their instrument or not. Soundcheck is no different than the show, they care for each other, listen to each other and challenge themselves all the time. We were still riding that wave when we arrived at Love Supreme.

LJN: You are part of a coterie of Armenian jazz artists who have distinguished themselves on the international stage over the years (not to mention the late Paul Motian and Armen Donelian!) – Levon Malkhasyan, Elina Martirosyan and of course Tigran Hamasyan. To what extent do you reference Armenian rhythms in your compositions and performances?

YK: That’s a legendary list… Thank you for generously adding me. My main interest right now is to create a musical source material that invites the band into a courageous dialogue, transcending national and ethnic barriers while celebrating them. Through the personalities that compose the band, any cultural elements can be a possibility rising from that source. It’s a huge challenge as we have to develop the human resources necessary for welcoming and collaborating with all these different points of views. All improvised music is not jazz though. The heart and soul of the music comes from an experience of people rising out of oppression. Many cultures, including Armenian culture, share that experience. Hopefully our music can resonate in people’s hearts and bring them together. That’s the challenge we are taking this year with the guidance of Terri Lyne Carrington in my trio, as well as with my quintet at Ronnie Scott’s, composed of both jazz and Armenian traditional improvisers.

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LINKS: Artist Website

Ronnie Scott’s bookings

Details of jazzahead! showcase

Yessai (album) on Bandcamp

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