A widely held truism is that jazz music is America’s only original art form, an indigenous artistic expression born from a history of slavery and segregation and New Orleans’ convivial atmosphere. But when early jazz pioneers were mixing elements of European melodic structures and African rhythms, they weren’t setting out to add to the culture of the burgeoning country; they were finding a way to ease the hardships they faced as disenfranchised minorities. They showed how music could be a more meditative, explorative, and expressive style of play than the rigid genres that ruled radio at the time. America’s global cultural influence helped jazz spread from Tokyo to Johannesburg. Thankfully, it also found its way to Yerevan, the birthplace of piano virtuoso Tigran Hamasyan.
StandArt is the 11th album from Hamasyan, whose 34 years belie his consistently strong output. Hamasyan’s past albums have been drawn mainly from his bespoke amalgam of jazz, rock, folk, and traditional Armenian music. However, on StandArt, Hamasyan’s first covers album, the attention is set firmly to jazz standards from the Great American Songbook. Recorded in Los Angeles by Hamasyan with drummer Justin Brown and bassist Matt Brewer and contributions from Ambrose Akinmusire, Mark Turner, and Joshua Redman, the record is a rich listen with many layers of moods and expression. Writing about the album and the origins of jazz, Hamasyan said, “As an immigrant—an Armenian-American—I relate to these composers and musicians from various backgrounds who have that kind of history, a dark history, but managed to succeed in an embodiment of freedom.”
One artist who embodies freedom is Elmo Hope (1923-1967), a New York jazz composer who, at the age of 17, was shot by police. A bullet narrowly missed his spine, and Hope’s recovery was long. He never returned to school, instead focused on the piano. Hope developed an interest in the bop style of jazz, ‘musician’s music,’ as it was called. Bop jazz was a harder, faster, and more rhythmically complex way of playing intended for listening, not dancing. On “De-Dah”, Hamasyan wonderfully reimagines Hope’s hard bop style, making the edges sharper so that they cut through today’s data-saturated age. The swinging drop of the main refrain leads to passages of a three-way battle for solo – Brown’s playful cymbals like a hare racing Brewer’s tortoise bass. The quieter passages hint at a nuanced beauty.
“I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” is willing to get unpleasant when it breaks down to Hamasyan’s stilted playing and Brown’s scattered hits, creating confusion that finds answers in the pursuing moments of simple harmonization and more serpentine improvisations. “Big Foot”, featuring Joshua Redman on saxophone, is an epic take on Parker’s original composition. The track rarely lets up for its seven and a half minutes, with Redman’s sax hypnotically ascending and descending before breaking out into unbridled improv. Brown’s double-time ride and Brewer’s steadfast bass expertly help the sax hand over the baton to the piano before marrying them at the finale. There’s a sense of mischief from all players on this track, underlined by Hamasyan’s frequent shifts in mood. Another title for this song is “Drifting on a Reed”. Parker was unaware of how label boss Ross Russell had cataloged it and referred to this song only as “Big Foot”. Somehow, both titles fit. There’s a drifting ease to its big steps.
Hamasyan’s solo work on “When a Woman Loves a Man” is light and speedy, his notes impossibly and satisfyingly bundled together at the end of bars. The drums dip in and out of broken time, adding more emphasis to the lead when appropriate. Strokes of Brown’s brushes nicely swirl, while crashes are played forte, and other cymbals communicate in polyrhythms. It’s an ebullient track that bounces as it progresses.
“Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” is a dark interpretation of Sigmund Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein’s 1928 centerpiece to the operetta “The New Moon”. The piece introduces itself with a neoclassical piano that eventually weaves in and out of continually shifting passages of the central motif. After an enchanting transit that sees Hamasyan’s flurry touches sound like a harp and Brewer coming in early, resting on his notes before bowing his strings, the performance builds to an energizing, rock-influenced crescendo; Hamasyan twisting the narrative with frightening key changes. It feels like the centerpiece of the collection. The production is clean and loud, and Hamasyan’s dynamic playing sometimes sends notes aggressively to the center of the mix. This is jazz for people who like to sit at the edge of their seats.
“I Should Care” sees a rolling piano and whispery trumpet create a moody, neo-noir atmosphere. The experimental and improvisational tones of Akinmusire blend naturally with Hamasyan, and the two harmonize to often heartbreaking effect. The only original on the collection, the improvised “Invasion at the Opera”, is an aimless affair. Though there are some beguiling trumpet vocalizations from Akinmusire, and Hamasyan’s playing is reliably lovely, it feels haphazard when sequenced among such accomplished pieces. Though it helps add some texture to the otherwise clean album, the track’s two-and-a-half minutes simultaneously feels too short and too long. Closer “Laura” is a pretty track that finds moments of joy when the musicians flex their technical muscles and moments of wonder when they display their capricious and interlocking ruminations. Played loud and fast from the start, the song sadly falls apart and fades out hastily without finding the album’s last note.
If jazz is America’s only art form, Hamasyan shows that these excavations are still as relevant today as they were when they first appeared. Unconscious bias, racism, and wealth inequality are issues that affect virtually everyone, but disproportionately minorities and immigrants. Hamasyan’s understanding of this, and his respect for the black and Jewish communities who contributed most significantly to the genre, is handled in a way that, imperatively, doesn’t neglect his sense of play. StandArt is a dissection and reformulation of the Great American Songbook that holds on to the essence of the numbers it pays homage to while lending them a modern, high-fidelity sheen and Hamasyan’s mastermind perception.