An Ancient Observer by Tigran Hamasyan

Release date: March 31, 2017
Label: Nonesuch Records

In the last few years, one of the recurring names when talking about musicians to keep an eye on has surely been Tigran Hamasyan, one of the most eclectic pianists of this age, due to his varied influences, ranging from classical music to Meshuggah, but always keeping in the foreground his own blend of modern jazz and Armenian folk music. On his new record, being completely solo, there are no distractions from his playing, and in less than 45 minutes Hamasyan not only confirms his prominent position in the jazz world but also shows his most empathic side, delivering a stunningly personal yet universal work.

An Ancient Observer is his eighth record as a sole leader and his second album for Nonesuch Records, his first one being Mockroot (out in 2015), and you won’t be able to find anything else that sounds like it. Hamasyan’s musical language has never been more defined: Armenian melodies, based on modal scales and enriched by frequent yet always discreet ornaments, are matched with harmonic and rhythmic restlessness, odd time signatures, tuplets and polyrhythmic sections. The influences are so internalized that it’s impossible to separate the elements, and the perfection of this fusion guarantees the fluidity of the playing.

From the first track, we enter in a world in which the word “ancient” bears the responsibility of centuries of history, and the melodies come and go like memories of a recurrent dream. To further enhance the impact of the themes, vocals are often layered into the mix, not only adding timbric richness but also surrounding the listener with a spiritual yet profoundly human presence that is there to remind them of the scope of the journey they’re experiencing. One of the most important milestones on this path is certainly ‘Nairian Odyssey’, one of the two tracks based on a traditional melody: after 8 minutes of continuous reinvention, drifting between harsh dissonances, fragile melodies, memorable chants and even a beatbox section, the initial theme finally returns, just to be transformed again, in a first moment only through a reharmonization, and then being completely twisted. Even synths and effects are added to the sound palette and it’s thanks to them that the ambience in ‘Leninagone’ is so successfully crafted: on the post-apocalyptic landscape they sketch, Hamasyan’s piano and voice stand out and, using only simple phrases, perfectly describe the scenery in a few minutes, after which the sounds progressively disappear.

To sum up, this record not only displays Tigran Hamasyan at his best, but also constitutes an introspective and cathartic experience; the title track, ‘Ancient Observer’, is the perfect synthesis of all the elements: the way the crescendos are used perfectly enhances the theme, supported by the enveloping vocals, and its never-ending changes matched with unforgettable melodies are the best way to conclude what could easily be one of the best albums you will hear this year.

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