Tigran Hamasyan is on a roll. Based on his brilliant new album of solo piano (A Fable on Universal Jazz France), a French Grammy award (International Album With French Production), his collaborations with several top-tier musicians (including Trilok Gurtu and Dhafer Youssef, among others), international performances including at the Montreux Jazz Festival, and accolades from jazz piano legends Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, 2011 proved to be a banner year for the young pianist who was born in Armenia and is now based in the U.S. “It was an intense year,” he says, “with a lot of things happening, it seems, all at once.”
In addition, last year on November 11 in France, Tigran released EP No. 1, the 20-minute extended play available only on vinyl and as a digital download. He toured extensively with Youssef in support of the oud player/vocalist’s Abu Nawas Rhapsody album, performed a concert with Moroccan singer Hindi Zahra at Paris’s renowned Cité de la Musique, invited French guitarist Nguyen Le to guest at some of his concerts and recorded with Swedish bass player Lars Danielsson. Tigran performed a series of sold-out concerts in Paris in November and early December, at diverse venues including a pop club and a college museum. And in a New York Times piece where pianist Brad Mehldau discussed his favorite artists in 2011, he singled out Tigran, saying that he “really grabbed me, in this really cool way.”
Tigran promises to be as busy performing in 2012 as he was in 2011. He’ll sit in frequently with Gurtu, whom he first played with at the concert release party for A Fable in Paris. “At our first rehearsal, we had a great connection,” Tigran says. “It was a huge honor to play with one of the world’s greatest percussion players, and it was exciting because I’m fond of Indian classical music and what Trilok brings to it.” Gurtu, in turn, was impressed, noting that “he plays piano like a raga…the next Keith Jarrett.”
Tigran will launch a solo tour in Europe in March and April and because of the pop music crowd’s interest in his playing will perform at the French rock fest Printemp de Bourges at the end of April. Tigran will also be gigging with his own trio throughout the year. He’ll be especially busy in July, with marquee dates at several European festivals, including the North Sea Jazz Festival (in Rotterdam, Holland), the Vienne Jazz Festival in France and the Vitoria Jazz Festival in Spain. This fall the touring continues with numerous dates, including the Monterey Jazz Festival in Monterey, Calif., in September, a charity concert in Sao Paulo, Brazil in October and the London Jazz Festival in November.
Tigran also plans to record his next album in June, due for release on Universal in 2013. In addition, in March 2013, he’ll be doing a two-week tour of Canada.
Tigran’s music teems with his personality and is fired by his passion. His potent jazz improvisation fuses with the rich folkloric music of his native Armenia, resulting in a fresh sound marked by an exploration of time signatures beyond 4/4 into 5/4 and 9/8, charged dynamics, the shifting between acoustic and electric modes of expression, the use of exotic instrumentation including duduk, shvi and zurna, and, in the case of Red Hail, the enlisting of a singer well-versed in Armenia folks songs to deliver alluring vocals that complement the band’s stretch.
“When I was 13, I began to understand the rich culture of Armenia,” says Tigran. “I thought, it’s in my blood. I grew up with this incredible music without realizing it. Slowly I began to listen more to the folk music, and it shocked me how much it had been completely ignored. The more tunes I learned…the more I saw the rich potential for merging those with improvised music. That started me on a lifetime journey.”
Previous to being signed by Universal Jazz in France, Tigran recorded three albums on European labels as a leader—World Passion (2006), New Era (2008) and Red Hail (2009). Based on those discs, he became heralded as a jazz revelation by critics.
Born in Gyumri, Armenia, in 1987, Tigran grew up in a household that was full of music. While a toddler, he gravitated to tape players and the piano instead of regular childhood toys, and by the time he was 3, he was working his way through figuring out songs on piano by pop artists. His jazz tastes early on were informed by Miles Davis’s fusion period, and then around the age of 10 when his family moved to Yerevan, he came to discover the classic jazz songbook under the aegis of his teacher Vahag Hayrapetyan, who had studied with Barry Harris.
After focusing further on jazz and meeting numerous American jazz artists who were touring Europe, Tigran began to win a series of piano competitions, including the top prize at the prestigious Thelonious Monk Jazz Piano Competition in 2006 and in the same year second place in the Martial Solal International Jazz Competition in Paris.
He relocated to Los Angeles with his family where he began to make contact with the jazz community there and linking up with such musicians as saxophonist Ben Wendel and drummer Nate Wood, who continue to play with him today. Tigran kept his European connections, which led to him recording his albums for the France-based label Plus Loin.
For his debut album on Universal Jazz France, A Fable, Tigran delivered a dynamic solo piano collection with lyrical songs that ranged from gracefully refined pieces to energetic experiments with rhythmic and harmonic diversity. The source of inspiration for the album came from traditional Armenian folk music as well as poetry. With all of the songs featuring Tigran’s inventive arrangements, A Fable featured the pianist’s own compositions as well as a wealth of covers, including Armenian melodies and a mystical rendition of the jazz standard, “Someday My Prince Will Come,” as well as music inspired by the poetry of Hovhannes Tumanyan and Gegham Sayyan.
“The title of the album came to me because all of the compositions are telling a story,” says Tigran. “I think people relate to fables because they are simple, yet deep.”
Recorded in Paris, A Fable showcased compositions that Tigran wrote and arranged over the past previous years. The title track, a Tigran original, was written in Armenia six years earlier. “This song was inspired by Armenian folk tales as well as fables written by medieval Armenian fabulists such as Vardan Aygektsi and Mkhitar Gosh,” he says.
As for recording a solo album after three recordings that featured a full band, he says, “A lot of people heard me perform solo concerts and wanted to hear me in this setting. The simple idea of performing alone in a room with an acoustic piano has been one of the most natural, and yet challenging ways to express myself musically. It is challenging because of the fact that the only two ‘band members’ that you can interact with and count on are you and the piano. Yet at the same time the freedom that you have while performing alone is deeply inspiring.”
The album thoroughly won over listeners. While Tigran’s career had been on an upswing up to the point of recording A Fable, the new album proved to solidify his growing stature in the jazz world.