When Armenian born pianist, keyboardist and occasional singer Tigran saw a traditional Armenian shadow theater for the first time, he felt the power of ambiguity. The silhouetted figures have no faces, and they seem to be hiding multitudes of meaning; in that darkness, the viewer must place her own story. With Shadow Theater, due out April 15, 2014, Tigran picks up on that idea, offering a lush and energizing landscape that allows listeners to dive in — and explore their own imaginations.
Shadow Theater shows the breadth of this young experimenter’s vision, and it shows how much a young musician these days can make jazz and folk music sound like experimental pop — and the other way around. Tigran has already collaborated with figures ranging from American electro post-hip-hop producer Prefuse 73 to Tunisian oud master Dhafer Youssef, to Swedish cellist Lars Danielsson to French electronic producer Fowatile as well as Norwegians Arve Henriksen, Jan Bang and Eivind Aarset. Shadow Theater compounds the painterly piano playing that won him First Place at the 2006 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition with folk influences from his native Armenia. Along the way, it adds a bodily jolt of death metal and a range of kinetic electronic textures that root the record firmly in the present, and give it a greater appeal to non-jazz listeners than any of his previous efforts.
The result lands somewhere between Madlib’s dragged-out beat wizardry and Meshuggah’s doomblasting sonic inferno, Sigur Rós’ lapsing stratospheric textures and Steve Reich’s insistent crosshatchings. All are stated influences on the pianist. You might say that it offers a new meeting ground for experimental jazz and popular music, pointing to a way forward for others — but then again, it’s hard to imagine anyone else building something so personal and fluid out of these components.
More than anything, Tigran hopes that it will help listeners investigate and illuminate their own experiences. “The album is basically the contrary of the shadows in the theater, because the sounds are cinematic and rich in colors. It’s the imagination,” he says. “I let everybody imagine their own story behind the shadows.”
For the record, he’s joined by an A-list band of young innovators mostly based in New York, featuring drummer Nate Wood and saxophonist Ben Wendel of the jazz-rock band Kneebody, plus the multitalented vocalist and Armenian folklorist Areni Agbabian and the bassist Sam Minaie. The album is rounded out by a handful of string players and electronic percussionists, as well as new touring drummer, Arthur Hnatek, and bassist Chris Tordini.
Tigran was only 19 when he found himself catapulted to jazz stardom after winning the prestigious Monk competition, but he was quick to avoid picking up anyone else’s mantel: he dove into touring projects with The Moutin Brothers largely in France and Europe, recorded as a sideman with drummer Ari Hoenig and began an ongoing collaboration with a group of then Los Angeles-based musicians (Tigran and his family had moved to the Los Angeles area when the pianist was 14 and following high school he attended the University of Southern California).
First was the saxophonist Ben Wendel, whom Tigran met at USC. The resulting quintet Aratta Rebirth formed in 2009, featuring Wendel, Wood (both of Kneebody) and Agbabian and Minaie (who both attended Cal Arts), special guest Altura and other young comers on the jazz scene. The band was a stunner: 2010’s Red Hail proposed an approachable synthesis of zinging piano calisthenics, ethereal female vocals and ethnic jazz fusion. The X factor was Tigran’s love affair with metal, which gave the album a surprising ability to transcend its own boundaries, matching beauty with destitution.
Three years later, he pushed himself zestfully into another transformation, releasing the surprisingly lush solo album A Fable, in which he performed overdubbed duets with himself. The opus — which also featured some of Tigran’s own vocals — earned plaudits from around the globe. In France he received a 2011 “Victoire de la Musique” award (analogous to a Grammy® Award).
For Shadow Theater, Hamasyan abided by a rigorous process: He spent two weeks rehearsing and recording the album in the South of France with his band, an augmented version of Aratta Rebirth, then added another month of post-production. Listening to the record, you can tell it’s the result of a fertile push-and-pull between one man’s strong vision and an entire band’s comfortable communication. “I brought the songs in all ready — I even had the drum beats in mind,” he said. “But obviously, certain things work and certain things don’t work. It’s one thing to do a really killing demo, with everything you imagine, then another thing to actually bring it for the musicians to play. Sometimes things got shifted around because the guys had their own things to contribute.”
Additionally, Universal released a remix EP of the single “The Poet” highlighting collaborations with Fowatile, Prefuse 73 and the bass music producer LV. An integral part of Tigran’s new live show not coincidentally involves the pianist leaving his main instrument and appearing center-stage using a Roland TR808 drum machine and layering his beats underneath his own singing and beatboxing, further revealing a desire to shatter all expectations of someone known primarily as a pianist.
When you listen to the Shadow Theater’s Technicolor brilliance and folksy undercurrents, you feel the depth of what that process produced. And you feel like Tigran could have cribbed a concept from another crossover pioneer: this album depicts a “brightsize life.”
Shadow Theater will be released in the United States on April 15, 2014 via Sunnyside Records.