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Day Three in Montreal: Gretchen Parlato and Tigran Hamasyan

Radio programmer and host Russ Davis reports on performances by vocalist Gretchen Parlato and pianist Tigran Hamasyan during the 2011 Montreal International Jazz Festival

Tigran Hamasyan
Gretchen Parlato at the 2010 CareFusion Newport Jazz Festival

My favorite way to begin each day while attending the Festival International de Jazz de Montreal is to take a morning walk through the streets of the city and walk ever upward until I come to the corner of Rue Peel and Rue Pins where the steps lead up through the woods to the top of the mountain that gives the city its name, Mont Royal. There, after what can be a nice little workout if you want to walk, run or bike up through the trails, is quite a nice payoff and that’s the beautiful view overlooking the city center below and the curves of the St. Lawrence River. When you get there you’ll know why Jacques Cartier named this place “The Royal Mountain.” Wander through the beautiful open spaces and wooded trails of the Parc du Mont-Royal, designed by a certain Mr. Fredrick Law Olmsted who also did a similar favor for New York City called Central Park, and make your way down again for breakfast and you have the recipe for the beginning of another fabulous day in Montreal! On my third day here at the 32nd Montreal Jazz Fest I had the occasion to hear performances by a couple of artists who are fairly new upon the scene and who are making their way up the mountain too, and they are certainly headed to the very top!

Gretchen Parlato has an absolutely unique voice, really unlike anyone I’ve ever heard. It is so perfectly imperfect in the mold of Billie Holiday in that she emotes in such a wonderfully real, natural and human way as she slides above and below the notes finally arriving at the perfect point. At times she is not exactly articulating the lyrics as much as communicating the words in moans and sighs. It’s as if Gretchen is singing in English but with an accent that sounds somewhere between Portuguese and French, or maybe Martian. I imagined she was performing for us in the bar scene in Star Wars, remember that? So it was totally appropriate that she was performing in the club L’Astral for this years’ festival appearance.

L’Astral, opened just a couple of years ago on the street level of the multi-floor building that is the “Maison du Festival,” the fulltime home of the Festival offices. It’s a true jazz club created just for this glorious purpose, not like so many funky, little jazz joints that are created out of an old storefront. It’s cool, classy and intimate with a nice balcony and two bars on either side of the room that’s filled with tables and chairs loosely arranged in front of the stage. Gretchen walked on stage sporting an asymmetrical little black dress and her now-signature asymmetrical hairstyle, all a perfect complement to her unconventional vocal style that has enthralled audiences worldwide. Her latest release, The Lost And Found, has topped the jazz charts and much of the set was filled with songs from this album which shows more and more what a fine writer she is as well an interpreter of the tunes of others as varied as Herbie Hancock, Stevie Wonder and Wayne Shorter. Her band includes the perfect keyboardist for her, Aaron Parks, who has a gentle touch that blends well with Gretchen’s softer side. He has enough dynamics in his playing to help the music groove when it needs to and the rest of the band, who Gretchen calls “just like her brothers,” is as solid as a rock and completely in tune with her. She gave a playful performance including inviting an audience member to join her onstage to model a t-shirt he’d just purchased that was designed by Gretchen and her sister. He received a kiss for his efforts and was the envy of the entire house. Gretchen Parlato is a vocalist on the way up and is helping define what “The New Jazz Singers” are all about.

Then I was off to hear pianist Tigran Hamasyan in the intimate surroundings of the Gesu theatre. The Gesu, a converted church that was built in 1865, can be a holy place for musical performance, and the set by this young Armenian-born pianist and composer (the dude is only 23) began in a gentle and reverent style with a stripped-down all-acoustic piece that would certainly not define what the rest of the performance would be like. With his complement of musicians including a tall, willowy female vocalist, whose wordless vocal goes a long way to help Tigran achieve his unique style, bassist, drummer and saxophonist I felt a bit surprised as I heard the acoustic performance and remembered how different it felt from the music of his group recording, Red Hail, with its often high-energy and electric groove. I have to learn to be more patient. Not long after the first acoustic piece had ended the bassist strapped on a thundering electric bass and the game was on as the “real” Tigran, or at least the one I expected, arrived!

Earlier in the day I had enjoyed a long conversation with Tigran and learned how a young guy growing up in Armenia came to embrace jazz and improvised music and make it his life’s work. He explained that he had an uncle that “made” him listen to jazz and he had especially loved Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters album. Nice entry point into jazz by any account in my humble opinion. He also heard the jazz classics and rock and mentioned that his favorite was Black Sabbath!

That combination of influences says a lot to me because as the set at the Gesu progressed, Tigran and the crew launched into one powerful jam after another as the band latched on to a riff just as any heavy metal band might and milked it for all it was worth. It was full of sound and fury but signified a ton! The bassist rocked his ass off while the vocalist and saxophonist, who alternated between soprano and alto, blended almost perfectly creating an other-worldly sound that meshed with the repetitive pounding of Tigran and the rhythm section. Imagine Art Tatum jamming with Led Zeppelin while a vocalist wails and the band rocks so hard that everything becomes a blur! Imagine high energy jazz-rock, tinged with classical and Armenian folk overtones and you’ve got the music of Tigran Hamasyan and a new voice for jazz piano for the 21st century.

The packed house in the Gesu has heard about this wunderkind from the Middle East and they went absolutely wild, demanding two encores until Tigran had to quiet the crowd with a solo piece to finish the night. By the way, when I first got to town I picked up his latest album titled A Fable. It’s a solo piano album with some electric embellishments but it’s shorter pieces and shows his fine writing style as well as his playing. He told me at the end of our interview that he’s working on a new album and it will be a group record. Whatever you’ve got my young brother…I’ll take it!

Russ Davis is host of MOJA radio.

Originally Published