Tigran Hamasyan, photo by Rob Gaudet for blue whale

Tigran Hamasyan, photo by Rob Gaudet

On Wednesday night, I finally made it back to my favorite LA jazz club, blue whale. Pianist Tigran Hamasyan was playing a solo show, and I knew that it was going to be something that I’d regret missing. So I carpooled with two friends, Alyssa Mathias and Kristin Gierman, to check it out—and we sure weren’t disappointed! Rather than write a straight-ahead review, though, I thought I’d try something different: an improvised concert review. So after the set, I fired up my audio recorder in the car, we asked each other questions about the set, and I transcribed the result. Check it out after the jump, lightly edited, minus our typically Angeleno debate over which freeways to take home:

These two were a great pair of discussants: Alyssa is a singer, violinist, and MA/PhD student in ethnomusicology at UCLA studying music of the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Armenian music has been a particular interest for her — Hamasyan is Armenian — so she heard this set from a unique perspective. Kristin is a filmmaker and yoga teacher with wide-ranging musical tastes — not to mention a superb chauffeur!

We arrived partway into Tigran’s first set, and stayed for the rest of the night. Hamasyan added a sprawling electronic rig to his piano halfway through, giving him a wider sonic palette for the second part of the evening.

Here’s what we had to say about the show:

AWR: I don’t know about you guys, but that last tune where he was beatboxing over himself playing a piano groove . . . I’ve never heard anything like that before, the extreme virtuosity.

AM: Yeah, I’m curious—I’m not too familiar with jazz since 1970, so I have no idea how novel the sort of stuff he was doing was.

AWR: What I noticed from the very beginning of this first set was how precisely he was subdividing rhythms and creating rhythmic contrast. In that first set, he was just hinting at it with his piano stuff, but then when he got his electronics out it was even more intense. I think there’s something to that vibe he was doing—some of it is an extension of the experimental things that fusion guys were doing in the ‘70s, but it’s in conversation with EDM kind of stuff in a way that I really haven’t heard—in a way that my jazz nerd ears were just freaking out the whole time. I think that has to do with his rhythmic concept. He has a ridiculous command of how to put rhythms in conversation with each other. That is a hallmark of what jazz musicians have always done, but he’s doing it in a different kind of beat context.

AM: Yeah, it was cool that he wasn’t just laying down a beat and then going with it—he was really messing with it, in a way that would sort of throw you off but then he’d get right back on.

AWR: You were saying after the second tune in the second set that he’s basically doing a gospel thing with Armenian church music.

AM: Yeah, that was so cool! So he starts out with this church hymn—or a part of the liturgical service—and he takes this little part of it, and before you know it, it has this gospel vibe!

AWR: I think that same sort of zoomed-in rhythmic command that the modern gospel guys really nail, it was that same kind of sensibility that he was putting in his sound.

AM: And I think if you’re going to do something crazy to Armenian liturgical music, which really hasn’t seen a lot of change for centuries, you have to mix it with something that’s going to make sense, even if you’re changing it dramatically. If he was just turning it into an EDM piece, or hip hop, that might not necessarily be appropriate. But the fact that he was drawing on other religious music, other Christian music, made that experimentation a lot more meaningful. I think the audience would appreciate that more, and it was a largely Armenian audience.

AWR: Yeah, and not just the Armenian thing—a lot of jazz musicians talk about how the music has its roots in the church, and that’s what it’s about, you know? And it seems like he was tapping into that, too—some kind of mixture of those two spiritual roots, that was really interesting.

Also, I’m curious: right after we got there, the second tune that he did was a treatment of an Armenian folk tune—how did that contrast or was it similar to what he did there [with the church song]?

AM: Yeah, that tune is on one of his CDs, Red Hail, and there are quite a few Armenian folk songs that he takes—folk songs that were “approved” by the people who were classifying them in the 19th century. His treatment of those songs seems to have a wider range of emotional intensity, or at least he takes advantage of a lot more harmonic and dynamic possibilities, than in the liturgical piece. Also, part of me is like, “okay, you’re an Armenian jazz musician, so why do you have to do an Armenian folk song?” I’d love to talk with him and ask him why he chooses to do those songs, but jazz musicians improvise on standards, and an Armenian folk tune can fill that role. Others have done that before him—I feel like the next innovative Armenian jazz musician would be innovative simply by not adding an Armenian folk tune. But he does it so well that it seems to come from a creative place, rather than, I don’t know, paying lip service to the idea that Armenians need to keep those songs alive.

AWR: I got a sense that he was really trying to find the edges of what he could do with that. It was, “okay, Armenian guy doing an Armenian tune, okay we get it,” but once that wore off—throughout the whole set, not just with that song—he really took things in unpredictable directions. He was always going for it—you know how we were talking in our class earlier today about just going for it? He was fucking going for it all night.

(Alyssa and I are taking a class at UCLA on improvisation in 16th-17th century European music)

AM: I’m curious about the electronic setup that he had—is that something you’ve seen before?

AWR: No, not ever. He did mention that he hadn’t even done that before, so it seems like this is somewhere he’s going right now.

KG: He even pulled out a melodica!

AM: I think the Armenian tunes might also offer new melodic and rhythmic possibilities to a jazz musician.

AWR: It seemed like his way of pushing the edges of that material was rhythmic: he would find certain asymmetric grooves that worked with that, and then push it around and take that groove to totally different places.

AM: And those little melodic figures that I was pointing out to you [during the set] function as a way to tie those experimentations together, to tie them to the piece. That [three note pattern] just screams out Armenian music to me. I’m sure it’s in some treatise somewhere about what makes music Armenian, in the list of ornaments. That’s just a clue for me right away, and it’s interesting that he highlighted that figure.

KG: How did you guys interpret the mallets on piano strings?

AWR: Oh, that was cool. It’s sort of a philosophy, pushing things to the limits. Like, “what can I do with what I have? What can I do with my instrument? What can I do with my body? What can I do with electronic media—in a solo improvised live context?” Like you said, it wasn’t just laying down a beat and putting some loops on. He had the little glockenspiel, he had the melodica, he had ostinatos on piano that he would get going, and then put something else on top of it. The layers worked really well—he was searching for something, exploring.

AM: He must be well-versed in extended techniques—using the strings of the piano in unusual ways is not too uncommon in jazz and classical music. But again, he chose it carefully—it wasn’t “hey look, now I’m using mallets on my piano!”

AWR: Yeah! I loved that.

AM: He was very subtle about a lot of his boundary-breaking.

AWR: And it was musical: he always found the timbres that were appropriate for what he was trying to communicate musically. Like at the very end of the first set, he was playing “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and he did this riff that moved up the piano—it was part of the melody, but he just kept transposing it and moving it up the piano, up the piano, up the piano. And he got up into the very top upper register of the piano . . .

KG: It sounded circus-y!

AWR: . . . and it sounded like toy piano, like circus music! He just hung out there for a little bit, and then stopped—like the wind-up toy had just stopped. It was the perfect way of taking that timbre and doing something creative with it. There were a lot of moments like that throughout the set.

KG: When he left, he just walked right down the aisle, and people were like “ohhh that’s him!”

AWR: That was a very interesting way of ending the set—he set up that loop and just walked off the stage while it was still going.

AM: Alex, have you seen a show there that had such standard rows for the audience?

AWR: I was actually surprised that he set it up sort of conventionally—that’s the standard setup if there’s a combo or something like that. But with a solo set, you have an opportunity to move things around with the space a little bit differently. I know that another (Armenian!) pianist who plays there a lot, Vardan Ovsepian, has done some other stuff with the space, like setting up the piano in different places, putting the cubes in a circle around the piano, stuff like that. It would have been interesting—but it was also packed! I think part of it was just that they had to pack the room in.

Thanks again to Alyssa and Kristin for being a part of this little experiment! Thanks also to Rob Gaudet, bartender-in-chief, for the excellent photo. I hope that this was interesting to read, and look forward to trying something like this again soon. I’ll close by just saying one more time: WOW. What a fantastic display of what jazz musicians can do in the 21st century. Keep it up, Tigran!