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Armen Donelian: Sayat-Nova: Songs of My Ancestors

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Through the years, pianist Armen Donelian has worked with figures as diverse as Lionel Hampton, Chet Baker, Mongo Santamaria, Sonny Rollins and Paquito D’Rivera, as well as the fusion group Cosmology. On this two-CD set, he pays tribute to the 18th-century Armenian poet and minstrel Harutyun Sayatyan, known as Sayat-Nova (“King of Songs”). Acclaimed as one of his country’s foremost musicians and folk lyricists, Sayat-Nova performed in the court of Erekle II of Georgia until he allegedly fell in love with the king’s sister, resulting in his expulsion. He eventually became a priest in the Armenian Apostolic Church; he was killed in 1795 by the army of Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar, for refusing to denounce Christianity and convert to Islam.

Sayat-Nova, then, aside from his musical and lyrical gifts, was obviously a strong-willed man possessed by powerful, sometimes conflicting passions. Donelian eloquently captures this complexity. His readings of Sayat-Nova’s songs convey both spirituality and melancholy, emboldened by his forceful attack and the linearity of his improvisations. While remaining true to Sayat-Nova’s basic themes, he adds embellishments drawn from his own lifelong immersion in European classical music and American jazz as well as the traditional music of his Armenian heritage.

Disc 1 features Donelian on solo piano; disc 2 adds bassist David Clark and drummer George Schuller (sounding more “jazz” in conception and execution, if such a label must be used). Donelian’s meld of classicism and modernism-both tempered and enriched by his subtle but palpable wit-reflects Sayat-Nova’s own gift for balancing the dignity of the courtier with the romanticism of the minstrel. “I Call Lalanin,” allegedly a coded love song Sayat-Nova wrote for his secret royal paramour, is appropriately regal yet infused with both longing and-in Donelian’s ticklish upper-register curlicues-a playful sensuality. The desolation of “With the Nightingale You Also Cry” is redeemed by the bedrock dignity Donelian brings to it, along with the unabashed joy of discovery and new beauty that permeates his playing. Donelian slyly acknowledges the lineage between the modal nature of traditional Middle Eastern music and modern pop and jazz by inserting brief references to the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” and Miles’ “All Blues” into the brooding “Without You, What Will I Do?”; he infuses “Surely, You Don’t Say That You Also Cry?” with playful high-treble fillips and a propulsive, contemporary-sounding drive.

On the trio outings, Donelian relaxes his timbre and his tempo to ease into an unforced yet sturdy swing. “My Sweet Harp,” by the 20th-century Armenian composer Khachatur Avetisyan (the only non Sayat-Nova offering here), references Brubeck in both its time signature and its theme. “As Long As I Draw Breath,” befitting both its title and the trajectory of the composer’s life (as well as Donelian’s own approach toward, and realization of, Sayat-Nova’s vision) is imbued with a feeling of steadfast determination, expressed with gentleness and grace.

Originally Published