Dreamlike, mesmerizing and emotional, Tigran Hamasyan is a one-man musical revolution. Fusing the traditional music of his native Armenia with cool jazz and improvised avant garde forms, this 27-year-old piano virtuoso is a hypnotic musician with a style which is all his own, the Oxford Times writes.
Tim Hughes of the Oxford Times has talked to Armenian pianist Tigran Hamasyan.
It’s a haunting, inspiring sound which is practically impossible to define; even for him. “It is Armenian anti-experimental punk jazz,” he ventures. “It’s improvised music and 21st-century composition,” he goes on, before admitting that it’s better just to listen.
“The process of creation is totally abstract and during this process I have nothing to do with the world outside of music. Everything is music and the language is musical language. That’s why music will never be explained by words.
“I don’t ever think about what style of music I am writing because the styles can change, but the contact is one. The same melody and harmony can be arranged in the style of heavy metal, contemporary classical, or modern jazz.”
The pianist is talking from Montenegro, the latest stop on a European tour which tonight reaches Oxford. The tour comes hot on the heels of the release of his rapturously-received album Shadow Theater. Part of its beauty is its unpred-ictability, with electronic loops layered over traditional material, which twists and turns — the listener never knowing where it will go next. It references the music of Madlib, Sigur Rós and Steve Reich in its inventiveness, and has won the admiration of keyboard giants Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Brad Mehl-dau, as well as our own Jools Holland, Gilles Peterson and Jamie Cullum, on whose shows he has appeared.
The show will see him return to the North Wall where he last performed two years ago. And he is looking forward to coming back. “I like the venue, and the atmosphere there,” he says.
Tigran’s story began in Armenia’s second city, Gyumri, in a home which, he says, “was saturated with music”.
“Perhaps, it’s because there was a lot of music at home. My grandparents were mostly listening to classical music, my father was a great fan of classic rock, and my uncle loved jazz. I listened to music and fell under its spell.”
He says that from the age of two he had displayed an aptitude for music with the family tape recorder and piano soon becoming his favourite toys.
A year later. the boy, nicknamed Ashough, or “Troubadour” by his mother, had a repertoire of songs by the likes of Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, The Beatles, Louis Armstrong and Queen, accompanying himself on the piano.
“In Armenia there is this good tradition that children have to go to music school and learn how to play a musical instrument,” he says. “So there are a lot of families in Armenia that have a piano at home, even if nobody there is a professional musician. Thanks to this tradition, and thanks to my family, I grew up with two pianos — one at my grandma’s place and one at my parents’.
“I grew up listening to a lot of classic rock music and some 1970s Herbie Hancock from the age of three. And at the age of four I was playing and singing Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath songs which I picked up by ear.”
By the time he reached seven, he had discovered jazz and began improvising on piano.
“I always loved improvising and creating compositions and songs even before I knew how to read notes or even knew what improvising and writing was,” he says. “So creating music of my own came to me very naturally.”
The family moved to America, Tigran taking up a place at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Building on his love of jazz, he released two albums exploring what he describes as the intersections of jazz, classical and rock with sounds from the Caucasus.
Two years later he was off to the Big Apple, where he released his third album, featuring self-penned compos-itions and arrangements of Armenian folk songs. That was followed by his groundbreaking A Fable and now Shadow Theater, possibly also his most accessible album to date.
“Shadow Theater is more involved and deeper compositionally,” he says.
“It’s almost like a pop record. I spent the most time I have ever spent on a recording. The whole process was long, with rehearsals, week of recording (which is luxury for a ‘jazz’ record), three days of overdubs, two weeks of mixing, and one week working with the amazing producer David Kilejian on electronic treatments.
“It was really great to have all this time to go very deep into one project and feel a little bit of what it feels like to record a pop album.”
He says: “I am thankful to God and to all the people I have met on my path who have helped me to try to stay true to myself.
“Recently I was at [Armenian folk musician] Karo Chalikyan’s place, just outside of Yerevan, and during one of those long conversations, he said something to me that made everything so clear. He said ‘when you are playing or singing, don’t ever forget that you are always singing in front of God’.
“This got me thinking of the foundations — what is it that I love about music and what is true in my music that comes out naturally and has feeling, instead of just playing something that is cool or trendy.”
Last year, Tigran returned to Yerevan, though he admits he found his homeland a changed place.
“There are positive and negative developments in Armenia,” he says. “Obviously, thanks to Western propaganda, there are a lot of values and traditions that are slowly disappearing. “There is a lot of sellout, artificial, godless and undignified Western culture and a mentality that is slowly but surely influencing and brainwashing Armenian youth. In other words, people are separating from themselves and their inner worlds and connection to nature and values that should be more important than a brand new Mercedes or $500 tickets to a Rihanna show.
“The positive aspect is that, with all these influences, there is still so much soul and unexplainable beauty and human love in Armenia. When you land there you can feel it right away. As we say in Armenian: ‘Hamberutyune Kyanq e – Patience is life’.”