PREVIEW/ INTERVIEW Tigran Hamasyan. (With the Yerevan State Chamber Choir, Union Chapel October 15th

Tigran Hamasyan. Photo courtesy of ECM

TIGRAN HAMASYAN first burst on to the international jazz scene as the winner of the Thelonious Monk prize in 2006. His path since, on some half dozen albums, has embraced contemporary jazz and world music but even within his own highly eclectic parameters his latest album Luys i Luso (ECM) is a unique departure for the pianist who at only 28 has achieved so much already in a relatively short time frame. Ahead of a concert at Union Chapel on 15th October, he spoke to Stephen Graham on the phone from Yerevan:

Recorded with the Yerevan State Chamber Choir in his native Armenia, Luys i Luso is an extraordinarily spiritual album that has a humbling majesty and stillness to it. The title meaning, in English, ‘light from light’, explores Armenian sacred music, the pianist loosely improvising around Armenian modes as he and the chamber choir interpret newly arranged Armenian hymns, sharakans (chants) and cantos some dating back to the 5th century by among others Grigor Narekatsi, Nerses Shnorhali, Mesrop Mashtots, Mkhitar Ayrivanetsi, Grigor Pahlavuni and Komitas mainly written in grabar, the oldest form of the Armenian language.

Tigran explains how closely he connects with the ancient sacred music of his homeland: “The thing is I used to listen to it when I was 15 or 16. I also knew that I wanted to do something eventually with those incredible melodies and I wanted to arrange them. But I didn’t dare to touch them, it is such an old tradition, you have to go deep into it. I didn’t dare do anything until two or three years ago. But this coming to the music is natural in a way. The music is systematic and there are a lot of rules written down. For example all the songs are based on modal rules and on chants you can’t use certain rhythmic ideas or ornamentation. But if you hear something that comes from the heart then that music can’t pass you by.”

This project introduced him to some new collaborators. “It’s my first time working with this choir. I needed singers that would sing like priests and really be able to use a modern classical music tradition too. It was tough to find such singers. The rehearsing eventually went on for some six months. On the record it is a full choir but on tour we’re working with an octet version, it’s more an ensemble without a conductor. It’s more intimate.”

One of the most intriguing things about the project is that the piano part allows for some free improvisation within the arrangements. Tigran says in performance the scope of what he is playing changes a good deal from concert to concert. “Every concert is different, every time it’s a new journey, sometimes things happen that nobody would have known could have happened. We usually like to do the same set list but even this changes.”

A different mindset is needed as a listener away from fixed styles and comfort zones. On the metrically complex ‘Ov Zarmanali’ Tigran breathes wind into some improvisatory runs to break loose a little more than the otherwise tight structures allow. Later there’s a surge of power and inspiration the choir responding to Tigran’s sudden freedom on Mashtots piece ‘Voghormea indz Astvats’ a fasting canticle and plea for divine mercy.

What Tigran sees Armenian music and jazz as sharing in common illuminates a good deal of the sheer commitment demonstrated by all the musicians on the album. “It’s the soul of the music. You can’t hear it without seeing the mountains, seeing the people, listening to the people. Everything is connected. We can break it down into modes and specific ornamentation and technical concerns but the soul of it makes it distinctive. It taught me a lot about what my values are, my spirituality in my life right now. It made a big impact on me. It was sort of meant to happen. I always thought when I would get to this stage my life would change – and it has.”

Tigran and the Yerevan State Chamber Choir play Union Chapel, London on 15 October. BOOKINGS
Further British Isles dates are: 
Howard Assembly Room, Leeds (16 Oct)
Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin (17 Oct).

LINKS: Review - Tigran Hamasyan solo and with Jeff Ballard at the EJE in Cagliari in 2011
Young musicians to watch 2014
CD Review: A Fable from 2011

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