Tigran Hamasyan reimagined his native homeland of Armenia through a traditional, folk-inspired jazz performance Sunday evening.
Hamasyan, a pianist and composer, performed a 90-minute jazz piano recital in Royce Hall to a packed audience. The program focused on selections from Hamasyan’s two most recent albums “For Gyumri“ and “An Ancient Observer,” characterized by a fusion of jazz improvisations and Armenian folk music elements. Through a combination of solo piano, synthesized sounds and beatboxing vocalizations that imitate percussive instruments, Hamasyan’s performance served to honor the history of his Armenian roots through modern sounds.
Fourth-year music and political science student Kishan Patel said he initially came to listen to his friends in the band Platinum Nitro Circuit perform in the opening act which happened outside of Royce in the courtyard. Hamasyan’s virtuosity as a jazz pianist and deep knowledge of Armenian folk music made Patel excited to see him perform after receiving a ticket from his friend.
Hamasyan began his performance by playing a soft yet simple melody on the piano, resembling a muffled sound coming from the distance. The influence of Armenian folk music could be identified through the monophonic structure of single melodic lines at the beginning of the piece as well as various melodic ornamentations. Some of the folk-inspired elements included grace notes – or the addition of extra notes for decorative purpose – and trills, or rapid alternations of notes producing a quavering effect.
After repeating a single note on the piano while motioning for the late audience members to take their seats, Hamasyan abruptly stopped, took a sip of water and thanked the audience for coming out to his performance, generating laughter from the hall in response to his decision to take a short break in order to wait for the audience to settle. His next piece followed a similar structure to the first, beginning with a repeating single note that transformed into a plain tune decorated by Armenian folk-sounding grace notes and trills centered around half-step intervals.
Hamasyan introduced the jazz elements gradually, rolling out chords to sustain the surprising harmonies and improvising in the higher registers over a steady left-hand, folk-inspired accompaniment. Although improvising is a common characteristic of jazz, Hamasyan’s folk-inspired improvisations consisted of close intervals that attempted to mimic subtle tone shifts. His rapid virtuosic improvisations even rendered soft chuckles from several listeners.
Soon after, Hamasyan delved into the electronic world of music, turning toward the synthesizer on the stage, placed to the left of the acoustic Steinway & Sons grand piano. Through overlay of various electronic sounds and timbres, such as chimes, he created an eerie atmosphere used as a basis for his improvisations on the acoustic piano. The musical ambiance was accompanied by color changes in the spotlight, from warmer red tones to cooler blues.
During the second half of the program, Hamasyan meshed his piano improvisations with various vocalizations. He dedicated one piece to the surviving children of the 1998 earthquake in his hometown of Gyumri, whistling the melody along with the piano and using various beatboxing techniques to add variety to the rhythmic texture. In another piece, he sang notes that allowed for subtle folk-like oscillations in pitch as well as trill ornamentations.
Audience member and professional jazz pianist Cengiz Yaltkaya said Sunday’s performance was the first time he heard Hamasyan play, and that he was impressed by Hamasyan’s authentic voice considering how difficult it is to come up with new musical styles nowadays.
“In terms of improvisation, he mixed (Armenian folk music with jazz) very well,” Yaltkaya said. “His rhythmic originality was phenomenal … and I liked the fact that he used the microphone, used his voice as a rhythmic instrument, it was almost like an Indian Raga at one point.”
After receiving a standing ovation, Hamasyan proceeded to play two encores – a whimsical improvisation over the familiar Disney theme “Someday My Prince Will Come” and another Armenian folk jazz improvisatory piece.
Audience member Jackie Andrews said she was excited about the two encore pieces Hamasyan played because of his captivating use of complex chords and overlapping polyrhythms.
“As a performer, (Hamasyan) has an incredible touch on the piano. You can see how much he is putting into everything, and all his solos are incredibly well constructed,” Andrews said. “I listen to his music so I know that he doesn’t repeat himself. He’s coming up with unique performances every time.”