Tigran Hamsyan – A Fable (2011)
Firstly, a bit of context is useful: Tigran is a highly accomplished Armenian pianist, having won the prestigious Thelonious Monk international jazz competition as an 18-year-old, and having several highly varied albums to his name. Although nominally a jazz pianist, his playing and composing cover a wide range of styles, including classical, rock, metal, and particularly the folk music of his native Armenia.
I’ve been following the work of Armenian pianist Tigran Hamasyan for a while now – at least since late high school – and have been listening to this particular album since its release in 2011. When it came out, I was also consistently listening to another solo piano album called Good Days at Schloss Elmau, by Gwilym Simcock. While I would highly recommend it – it features some stunningly complex playing, intricate harmonies, and dense composing – something about the sparser and more lyrical playing on Tigran’s album has stayed with me, and probably influenced my own playing to an extent.
The 13 tracks cover a lot of ground, with a few including singing, percussion, or (on the first track), haunting effects intended to make the piano sound like a music box. I’m always interested in how great musicians condense their playing into a solo context, and in comparison to Tigran’s more intricate writing for ensemble, these solo pieces represent a more exposed and less urgent style of playing. It’s an underrated skill – and difficult to develop – but the shape and phrasing of the melodies, choice of harmony, or decision about texture and dynamics all seem perfectly formed to create a compelling narrative. Even though he is undoubtedly capable of much more complex writing and playing, this album is more like a poetic undertaking, expressing things not in a difficult or deliberately intellectual way, but in a more beautiful one.
Many tunes on the album are based on Armenian folk melodies, and many of his originals were deliberately designed to sound like Armenian folk melodies – I can probably credit a lot of his efforts in this regard to starting my interest in the subtleties of different folk musics. There’s a dark re-interpretation of ‘Someday my Prince Will Come’, an aptly-titled tune called ‘Carnaval’ with some surprising complexity beneath the surface, and his idiosyncratic and personal style of improvising is featured throughout.
Overall, highly recommended on multiple levels. Even more so given that he is about to release a new solo piano album, and will be touring to Melbourne later in the year – well worth checking out.