Since his debut release at the age of 18 in 2006, Armenian pianist Tigran Hamasyan has produced a number of wildly diverse stylistic experiments that show off his myriad influences and inspirations. Drawing primarily from the jazz and classical worlds, his music has also veered into metal, experimental and pop/rock, among others, resulting in a curious mix of sounds and styles that finds each release defying expectations. Because of this, it should come as no surprise that his latest release, and first for ECM, Luys i Luso, is yet another stylistic curveball.
Born in Armenia in 1987, Hamasyan moved with his family to Los Angeles in 2003. There he furthered his deep immersion into the world of jazz, a journey begun at a young age in Armenia. Before long, Hamasyan found himself earning the praises of Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea among others. Channeling his influences and appreciation of Hancock and Corea as well as Thelonious Monk, Art Tatum and Miles Davis, Hamasyan released a handful of straight jazz albums, began performing internationally and winning numerous awards. Soon Hamasyan began moving beyond jazz, incorporating his early love of metal to create a heavier sound.
In 2009, Hamasyan released his breakthrough album, Aratta Rebirth. A true musical fusion, the album found Hamasyan incorporating elements of his beloved jazz with traditional Middle Eastern folk melodies. Subsequent releases would find Hamasyan continuing to dabble in jazz while also restlessly following his muse. Returning to his native Armenia, Hamasyan immersed himself in the country’s sacred hymns, arranging an album’s worth of material for piano and voice. As much a celebration of a culture as a preservation of its heritage, Luys i Luso is a fascinating blend of the classical and contemporary, one which sounds at once familiar and yet utterly alien.
Opening with Grigor Pahlavuni’s monophonic chant or sharakan “Ov Zarmanali” arranged for solo piano, Hamasyan quietly lays the groundwork for what is to come over the course of Luys i Luso’s runtime. Moving away from the more stylistically diverse approaches for which he’s garnered critical praise over the course of his last few albums, Hamasyan instead takes a more introspective approach, returning to the music of his homeland and imbuing it with his own idiosyncratic style. Largely reverential and subdued, there are few moments over the ensuing hour plus which rise much above a whisper. It’s clear the music was designed to aid in personal and spiritual introspection and Hamasyan ensures this contemplative feel carries over into the modern era.
So subtle are the first few tracks on Luys i Luso that they often threaten to disappear within themselves. Over the course of its thirteen minutes, “Ov Zarmanali (Var. 1)” mellifluously moves along on a seemingly unending phrase that relies on alternating dissonance and resolution. Under this, Hamasyan inserts sporadically percussive phrases that serve to propel the music out of the Middle Ages and into the 21st century. His gently cascading lines, full of classical and jazz flourishes, help to augment the piece and function as a sort of contemporary counterpoint to the ancient choral hymn. When he goes on an extended, Hancock-esque solo passage, you begin to forget exactly what it is you’re listening to until the choir slowly creeps back into the mix. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition that allows the music to transcend time and genre tags, allowing it to exist on its own terms.
Similarly, medieval Armenian linguist, theologian and hymnologist Mesrop Mashtots’ “Bazum En Qo Gtutyunqd” is hauntingly beautiful, full of sublime tonal dissonance, affecting dynamics and a striking melodic figure. Here Hamasyan creates a series of delicate, feather-like piano flourishes that flit about the members of the Yerevan State Chamber Choir’s tightly crafted harmonies. Taken as a whole, it borders on the transcendent, capable of moving the listener to tears.
“Nor Tsaghik”, composed by Nerses Shnorhali, 12th century head of the Armenian church, noted composer of hymns and younger brother of Grigor Pahlavuni, features Hamasyan on prepared piano quietly singing along with his effected piano line, a spectral presence that proves all the more haunting when paired with the Yerevan State Chamber Choir’s gently rolling vocal interplay. When the female voices engage in dissonant, staccato syncopation with Hamasyan’s assertive piano lines the music steps directly into the 21st century. It’s a masterful comingling of the sacred and the profane, the divine and the secular, elevating Hamasyan’s work as arranger on Luys i Luso to the sublime.
Mashtots’ sprawling epic “Voghormea Indz Astvats” finds Hamasyan deploying jazz flourishes that serve to push both the tempo and the choir from fragile beauty to fortissimo unison phrasing and back again. Here perhaps more than anywhere else on the album, Hamasyan reconciles the stylistically disparate elements of his musical persona, pairing his polyglot musical inclinations with the sacred music of his homeland to create something simultaneously timeless and yet inherently modern. In this, Hamasyan has crafted an utterly mesmeric masterpiece.