Pow!: Tigran Hamasyan, Wunderkind or Just Good?


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Tigran Hamasyan—Solo + Quintet
Tuesday, February 8th at 7
Le Poisson Rouge

When I started receiving emails from Search & Restore about the upcoming appearance of the Armenian piano whizkid Tigran, I thought it best to approach with extreme caution. Our society is obsessed with prodigies, but especially in jazz, words like “whizkid" often equate to “flame-out." Jazz wunderkinds don't suffer the typical case of too-much, too-soon—even star jazz musicians don't make enough to snort fortunes up their noses—but like overgrown toddlers, they never learn to play well with others. They're all about “me;" but jazz is just too collaborative for a musician to cop that kind of pose. The trajectory is thus: The virtuoso 20-year-old jazz pianist arrives on the scene; a big record company signs him; he tours around Europe with his own band instead of serving an apprenticeship with the masters. His music stagnates into an act.

A few years back, I heard a double bill at Blue Note featuring the precocious pianist Eldar and a far-more-seasoned group with Don Byron and Jason Moran. Eldar played fluently. Byron's Ivey-Divey group dug deep. Their music was as textured and complex as Eldar's was polished and superficial.

I've thought back often on that juxtaposition. Was Eldar merely green? A talent in development? Or was it possible that bland, competent music was all we'd ever get from this greatly hyped pianist? He'd been signed to Sony Classical when he was 17 and, befitting a star, he played (and seems to still play) mostly with his own band. The pianist on the second part of the bill, Jason Moran, also became a star when he was young; but even as a MacArthur “genius" well into his thirties, he spends an awful lot of time working as a sideman. Eldar's career felt like it was probably managed by Sony Classical; Moran's career feels like it's managed by a very quirky man who goes by the name Jason Moran.

Which brings us to Tigran, he of the Eldar-like former-Soviet-republic roots and the preference for one name. (Understandable. Say “Hamasyan" three times fast.) He also shares with Eldar a technique-heavy approach to jazz piano that draws a lot of attention to his dazzling instrumental skill. It's great that Tigran plays so well; but in jazz, a surfeit of virtuosity often masks a paucity of soul. Thankfully, that's not the case with Tigran Hamasyan. On his new record, A Fable, he glides up and down the keyboard like an insufferable show-off, but then he'll hit a chord at an odd angle, cracking the perfection with Monkish jigs and jags. He pulls off two songs based on traditional Armenian melodies; and his propulsive, brooding “A memory that became a dream" reminds me of Guillermo Klein, which, as this blog's archives suggest, I consider very high praise indeed.

Tomorrow night, Tigran will play at LPR, first solo and then in an adventurous quintet featuring Kneebody's Ben Wendel and Nate Wood, musicians well-versed in both a classical approach and the seduction of deep groove. They seem like perfect foils for Tigran, forcing him to move his music beyond pure beauty. Tigran's already a damn fine pianist; I hope he'll keep exploring and become a seriously creative musician.

Tigran with Hoenig, Wendel, and Francois Moutin:

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This story appears courtesy of Inverted Garden by Eric Benson.
Copyright © 2020. All rights reserved.

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