By the time Tigran Hamasyan won the prestigious Monk piano competition in 2006, he had already dominated similar face-offs in Monaco and Montreux. In Moscow, nearer his native Armenia, he placed third. It’s an enviable track record for any rising musician, much less one who is just 20. Of course, Hamasyan isn’t the only precocious keyboard demon stirring today’s waters: Eldar Djangirov, also 20, emerged from another corner of the former Soviet empire (Kyrgyzstan) and, like Hamasyan, wound up in southern California. Add 23-year-old Taylor Eigsti of the Bay Area and you have a Golden State triumvirate.
In late November the diminutive Hamasyan came to Paris for a two-nighter at Sunside, sister club of the older Sunset, which is downstairs (and less focused on acoustic jazz). Drawing mostly on repertoire from his sophomore release New Era (Nocturne Jazz), Hamasyan played to a packed and eager house. Unfortunately, this correspondent was restricted to the bar area, which lacked seats, oxygen and a full view of the bandstand. Hamasyan couldn’t be seen. If there was a silver lining in this, it was the ample opportunity to focus on bassist François Moutin and drummer Louis Moutin, the brothers whose Moutin Reunion Quartet had played the New Morning club earlier in the week. Both took visible delight in the fiery inventions of their much younger partner, who addressed the audience tentatively in English.
The most stirring and unusual moment didn’t involve piano at all. In his intro to “Homesick,” a modern, uptempo blues in the “Matrix” mold, Hamasyan launched a lightning-paced vocal display, an a cappella hybrid of Indian konakol and human beatbox, with intricately overlapping rhythms and riveting forward motion. After about two minutes he returned to the piano, cued the band and leapt into the body of the piece, a densely syncopated and skittering affair not unlike the arrangement of “Solar” that began the show.
At full tilt, Hamasyan displays a firm command of the Corea-Hancock, lines-over-chords approach. But he also accesses a more percussive language, prompting a thick and aggressive interplay with the rhythm section. Piano and bass solos often worked up to the frisson of a huge, emphatic downbeat, reliably drawing cheers and applause.
There was also subtlety of another order: “Yardbird Suite,” played as a crawling ballad, emphasized the inherent beauty of the tune’s first two or three bars, which tend to fly by in a blur at the normal tempo. “Zada es” (“You’re an ill-fated girl”), an Armenian folk song adapted into a 3/4 burner, combined echoes of Corea’s “What Was” with an ornamental, Eastern-accented lyricism. Setting up “Memories from Hankavan and Now” with gentle, pop-like arpeggios, Hamasyan went on to coax the Moutin brothers from light straight-eighth funk into a double-time, Stevie Wonder-esque R&B groove. Here was Hamasyan’s autobiography in aural form, an international journey from the Caucasus to Motown and beyond. In a specific nod to France, he also included a slow minor-key waltz called “Leaving Paris” and an accelerating 5/8 piece in the Django vein, “Gypsology.”
More than anything, it was “New Era,” the title track from the latest CD, that indicated Hamasyan’s full promise. Built around looping, effervescent chords that brought Robert Glasper to mind, the tune locked into a repeated six-bar unit: two bars of a piano/bass unison lick followed by four of piano improvisation. The structure was compact, the effect swirling and hypnotic.Originally Published