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Tigran Hamasyan: Brilliant Covers

Tigran Hamasyan

Pianist Tigran Hamasyan was not the most popular finalist in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition held Sept. 17 at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center; at least not with the audience. Fortunately, the Thelonious Monk Competitions have never been a popularity contest and the judges are generally unswayed by the obvious tricks and flashy technique that so often and so easily generate whoops and hollers from fans. That may help explain how Hamasyan, an Armenian-born music student at the University of Southern California, won the 2006 piano competition by taking risks and recasting the standards “Cherokee” and “Solar” in challenging, time-altering ways. For his efforts he’ll receive the $20,000 first prize and a concert at the Kennedy Center next season. The $10,000 second-place prize went to Gerald Clayton, Hamasyan’s fellow student at USC and son of bassist John Clayton. Third place honors and a $5,000 check were awarded to Aaron Parks, currently attending the Manhattan School of Music and touring with trumpeter Terence Blanchard. Based on audience reaction, Clayton was the crowd favorite; he mixed elements of Beethoven, John Lewis and stride with an engaging, overtly strong sense of swing. Parks displayed a beautiful touch and offered introspective, thoughtful solos. But it was the final competitor Hamasyan who most impressed the judges, including Herbie Hancock, Andrew Hill, Danilo Perez, Renee Rosnes, Billy Taylor and Randy Weston. At the conclusion of his performance, the competition’s rhythm section, bassist Rodney Whitaker and drummer Carl Allen, both gave Hamasyan nods of appreciation.

As befitting the 20th anniversary of this competition, the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz pulled out some big stops. Former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell, both professing their love of jazz, presented Stevie Wonder with the Maria Fisher Founders Award for his support of the Institute and jazz education. As Powell referred to him, “the Eighth, Ninth and 10th Wonder of the World” played harmonica and sang “Midnight Sun” backed by Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter.

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