Jazz pianist Tigran Hamasyan on his new album, Shadow Theater, and his Armenian influences
Although jazz pianist Tigran Hamasyan, who's just going by his first name these days, is only in his mid-twenties, he already has more than two decades of playing under his belt. Having started on piano at the age of three, he was already playing festivals by the time he was thirteen. With a technical proficiency of someone much older, the virtuosic pianist won the 2006 Thelonious Monk Piano Competition, in addition to winning several other awards over the past decade. We spoke to Tigran about his daring forthcoming album, Shadow Theater, which is slated for release next spring on Verve, and his Armenian influences.
Westword: From what I understand, Shadow Theater was about four years in the making?
Tigran Hamasyan: I've had those compositions for a while. About six years ago, all the compositions came together, and obviously, I had to revisit all of them, but it's the feeling of what I'm doing right now. It's actually the first album where I really spent a lot of time producing it. There's a lot of details, a long time mixing, working on the treatments, like the electronics and the voices. You don't really get a luxury like that when you're doing a jazz album. So it was pretty fun recording and working on this album.
Why did you spend more time on this record versus your others?
The compositions that I had for this project, it just needed that. The more I thought about it, it just needed a record that has a pop approach. I spent a lot of time on producing something that not only sounds musically deep but also sonically something that has a lot of time spent on it.
Did you have an overall concept in mind when you first started writing the songs?
Not really. Not in the very beginning. I just had songs that I really wanted to record for this specific band. Then, slowly, when everything came together, the concept of the shadow theater originated. Usually the inspiration comes directly from musical experiences, but then I had the idea of putting in sort of a theatrical vibe to it. So everything is like shadow theater. Every piece is part of a theater -- an imaginary sort of world
I know you have two guys from Kneebody on the record -- Ben Wendel and Nate Wood. What made you want to pick those guys for the album?
Actually I've been working with Nate and Ben, especially, since 2004. Ben is on my first album. I found out later that Ben is in this band Kneebody. But basically when I moved to L.A. from Armenia in 2003, I wanted to record my first album, and I was looking for a sax player, and a lot of people recommended Ben. So that's how I met Ben, and then I got introduced to Nate later that year, actually.
So those guys... I mean, I needed a drummer that can play all these beats that I write. At the same time, I needed a really strong pop-rock drummer, and Nate has the most incredible sense of improvisation, and just makes everything feel so natural and fluid, so he was the perfect drummer.
It definitely seemed like there were some odd time signatures and lots of changes and that sort of things, as well, right?
Yeah, we've been working with Nate a lot on that. We've been sort of working together for the last few years, since that Red Hail album I did.
Can you talk about some of your Armenian influences?
Yeah, sure. Well, Armenian music has become part of me as a musician. I discovered it when I was thirteen. Since then, I got into it, and it's like a language that I learned, but this language was so familiar and so dear to me and so natural to me. It became part of... Like I am what Armenia music is, you know what I mean? It's just something that comes out every time I play music. Obviously, I can control it. Not all of my compositions have that Armenian influence in them, but this record does. Whenever I write a melody, I can write a melody that sounds like modern Armenian folk songs, but it's not a folk song. It's just something that I wrote in that musical language.
It seems like even some of your improvisations and soloing that you throw in some Middle Eastern modes and scales and that sort of thing.
Yeah, it's Armenian modes. I've been working on it for a long time now. It's a vocabulary. For me, what a jazz musician is is a musician that is a master of improvisation. To me, that's what jazz is. Then, obviously, when you learn jazz, there's certain vocabulary, like classical vocabulary that comes with it, but you master improvisation, like just being an improviser; it doesn't matter what knowledge you are using, like what vocabulary you are using to improvise, no matter what, you become a master of improvisation when you become a jazz musician.
But then, for me, later, I realized that the vocabulary doesn't need to be the Western classical vocabulary. It can originate from any folk music. If you delve deep down into the roots of classical music, it's all European folk music. So, for me, I just use my vocabulary -- Armenian vocabulary -- to improvise.