Tigran Hamasyan's global view of jazz
Given how Tigran Hamasyan’s career began, it might have been more surprising to learn the 23-year-old pianist didn’t one day sign to a major label.
With his fourth album, "A Fable," due next month (his first for Universal France) the Armenian-born Hamasyan seems on the verge of a U.S. breakthrough heading into Saturday’s show at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. A winner of the Thelonious Monk Jazz Piano competition in 2006, his career got off to an auspicious start well before that with a performance at the first International Jazz Festival in Yeravan.
"It was a huge stage," Hamasyan said of the 1998 performance, which marked his live debut. "I was 11. It got a little crazy after that."
"Crazy" in this case constituted splitting time between school and smoky clubs at a very young age (much to his father’s initial chagrin), which led to more performances on the European festival circuit. These led to Hamasyan meeting idols such as Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul, artists whose adventurous musical choices inspired Hamasyan to look further inward for inspiration.
“I learned how to improvise through jazz music . . . For me it’s the most incredible improvised music that exists. But the vocabulary of it doesn’t necessarily have to be the Western vocabulary,” Hamasyan said. “For me, that’s where Armenian folk music comes in, that vocabulary.”
After his parents relocated to Southern California, Hamasyan studied at USC before releasing three albums on a French indie label that found Hamasyan exploring the intersections of jazz, classical and rock with sounds taken from his native Armenia. Now living in New York, the pianist opted to record a solo album with "A Fable," and the results are complex yet immediately approachable.
While more introverted than his earlier recordings, which at various points included contributions from Kneebody’s Ben Wendel and Nate Wood, the willingness to take chances remains. A delicately whistled melody weaves around Hamasyan’s spiraling piano in “What the Waves Brought,” while the intricate “Samsara” shows his classical influences. Gently sung poetry from Armenia’s Hovhannes Tumanyan and a cover of a traditional Armenian hymn mark the album’s global roots, yet these elements merge seamlessly into a flickering cover of "Someday My Prince Will Come."
If it sounds like Hamasyan isn’t an artist who gets hung up on genres or labels, it’s no accident. "I don’t pay attention to what’s jazz," Hamasyan said. "I don’t categorize really."
-- Chris Barton
Tigran Hamasyan, the Edye at the Broad Stage, Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center. 1310 11th Street, Santa Monica. 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Sat., $22. (310) 434-3200.
Photo: Tigran Hamasyan. Credit: Vahan Stepanyan