Tigran Hamasyan

Oh wow, I’d forgotten this one. It’s from 2008, only a few months before the Wall Street apocalypse that pretty much wiped out the old L.A. jazz scene. I’d written a longish review of a Tigran Hamasyan show as the lede of a Brick’s Picks column and it made an unexpected splash, splashing as far as Armenia (via Glendale) and I got a call from the Armenian Reporter asking if I could do an expanded version for their paper. The money was several times what I received from the LA Weekly. Plus it’d also appear in the Yerevan edition and I could stare at a column with my byline and a completely incomprehensible alphabet. I’d walk the streets of Glendale with my head held high. I’d be one hip dude in Fresno.  The link is long gone, though. As is the paper. As is the whole jazz world I lived in then. Gone. Just memories.

But goddam those were the days. I’d jump in my fancy car and hit two or three clubs a night. Do that a couple nights a week. There were that many clubs and that many players and that much action.  It was a whole different vibe then, with no cover charges and four sets a night and you could come and go as you pleased. People spent cash and credit like it was going out of style, which it did, come that autumn. That was a fall that really fell, man. That jazz scene — my jazz scene — never recovered. Jazz became an untenable business model. It’s back now, but so different. Hefty cover charges and strict show times, and that link between the players and patrons is sundered. No longer can you banter with the musicians on stage or even off, you can’t or heckle no matter how good naturedly, you can’t even wander up and drop a ten spot into the tip jar after the greatest sax solo you’ve ever heard. Don’t even think of calling out a request. It’s a Jazz Bakery world now, very formal. It’s art and concerts and  deadly serious and no talking it’s a shame. For me, anyway. I feel vaguely uncomfortable with all the seriousness. I miss the intimacy of the old dives, and hanging out between sets at the end of the bar cracking wise with the players eyeing the women. Yeah it was low brow, sometimes, and no, it wasn’t Art in a formal sense. It was jazz, real jazz. Informal, spontaneous, nearly always great and sometimes, like this Tigran gig, absolutely brilliant.

Claude Nobs and jazz legend Quincy Jones were at an event in Hollywood recently, reminiscing about their years putting on the annual Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Someone asked Nobs (he’s the “funky Claude” sung about in “Smoke on the Water”) about the Thelonious Monk Jazz Competition held there recently.  The two had been judges, and Nobs remembered that all the young contestants had all played piano so beautifully, showing off their Thelonious Monk, you know, or Herbie Hancock or Bud Powell, each performing one of the master’s tricks. But there was one very young man, Nobs said, Tigre–and he stumbled on the name—who was completely original. Jones agreed. They’d never seen anything quite like him before. The ideas, the technique, the whole approach to the piano and the music—it was all so unique. The originality of genius perhaps. This young man has that. Nobs sighed and shook his head. Just can’t recall the name. Tigre-something. You people here, he’s lives here, you must know the name….

You mean Tigran Hamasayan?

Yes! That’s it! Oh man….if you haven’t yet you must see this young man play the piano!

Well you can….Tigran plays all over town. We saw him at the Café Metropol with brilliant young tenor Walter Smith, and what wild ride that was. Or nights with the fiery alto saxophonist Zane Musa at Charlie O’s out in the Valley. He’s played big concerts in Orange County and next to the bar at Jax in Glendale. He’s also played up and down both coasts, knocked them dead in New York and at festivals across Europe, and is all over YouTube. Nice website, too. Plus there’s those two fine albums, striking blends of jazz and Armenian compositions (in fact, Komiti comes before Coltrane in his listed influences, and there are very few jazz pianists in there at all. Tool makes it, though.) All in all not bad for a 21 year old from Gyumri, Armenia, who was plinking out Led Zep on the piano at three. When he plays now jazz pianists shake their heads in disbelief.

But you can see why at the Foundry, the eatery on Melrose in West Hollywood. The lounge is like a living room with couches and pillows and the musicians an arm’s length away. There’s an upright piano, a drum kit to its right and the bassist tucked a bit back between them. It’s like seeing jazz at a cocktail party. So intimate. And the musicians here play what they want to play, play what they feel, really let loose and it gets intense. And there behind the bar the owner and chef Eric Greenspan is glowing in all the energy…he likes the young jazz cats, their passion, their art. He never ever tells them to tone it down like so many other posh places. And when Tigran Hamasayan plays here, he says, “we let Tigran be Tigran”.

And Tigran was certainly Tigran. Such a little guy. Such a huge sound. So much talent…with themes and ideas and fragments exploding and filling the room like a blinding, deafening, mind-blowing jazz supernova. The music swirls about us there on the couch, Armenian folk melodies and Russian romanticism, long right handed Bud Powell trills, Oscar Peterson vignettes, a raging Horowitz, a ragging Tatum….bits of Duke Ellington and the Beatles and Cole Porter floating about…and as the evening wears on the experimentation gets wild, savage even, and big phat loud riffs emerge, huge heavy metal things (these are all kids, remember), with scrawny little Tigran up on his feet pounding at the keys like Jerry Lee Lewis or a Horowitz drunk and angry.

It was extraordinary.

So it’s odd running into him outside before hand. We’d just seen him play to a packed house at the Pasadena Jazz Institute, where he came out decked in Armenian garb and a headband like Jimi Hendrix and proceeded to stun the crowd with a suite of jazzed up Armenian folk music set to exotic meters, and here he is, this nice kid, who’s easy to talk to and likes girls and the beach and System of a Down. But in his head, they whisper, it’s all music. And that he lives music…that when he’s not playing music he’s composing music and when he’s not composing music he’s listening to music, and that’s everyday, all the time….

Back inside the Foundry a blues fades. For a second there’s just the sounds of the street and the chatter at the bar. Suddenly, some crazily timed thing erupts from the keyboard. The bassist and drummer watch and listen, trying to find where and how to join in. The drummer begins to tap a big Ziljian ride cymbal, gets into it, follows up on the snare and bass drum, and in comes the bassist down center. They flutter for a minute, then fly. You can feel the swing, it’s jazz now. And with the rhythm section firmly on board and locked in, Tigran takes off.

Tigran venting.

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