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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.

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