Armenian jazz pianist Tigran Hamasyan has long been dedicated to either his own work or to the inspiration of Armenian folklore. It wasn't until his tenth album, StandArt, that he decided to work with jazz standards, compositions that work for most jazz musicians as basic preparation and as material that players from all over the world agree on when jamming together. The pianist will present his current album on Friday 24 March 2023 at the Sono Centre in Brno as part of the JazzFestBrno festival.
Although you compiled the album StandArt from jazz standards, you didn't choose mostly from the best-known ones. I even get the feeling that you had to look very deeply in the Great American Songbook.
Yes, you're absolutely right. But I have to say that I have a very personal relationship with all the songs I chose for the album, plus about thirty other jazz standards. They're all my favourite songs. I have personal memories attached to them and their melodies are special to me. For example, I Didn't Know What Time It Was has perhaps the most interesting melody of any standard ever, in my opinion. And it's the same with the others I've chosen. Once I had the songs selected, I played them repeatedly and thought about what arrangements I could give them. I didn't directly plan to release an album of jazz standards, although I suspected that might happen one day. But during the Covid era, I suddenly realized that I actually had a ready repertoire that I just needed to record. And I arranged many more standards.
American jazz musicians often record albums of standards early in their careers and often live with them for a long time. You came to the subject after nine albums of your own compositions or arrangements of Armenian songs. Do you think that's also why your approach to standards is different?
I think there is a difference, but again, working on arranging a jazz standard is not much different from arranging, for example, an Armenian folk song. It's different maybe because I have a form and a harmony to deal with, and that's because my work with harmony is not quite usual. So that's where it's different. But otherwise there really are similarities. I have to capture the basic essence of the song, which in most cases is the melody. Then I allow myself some artistic freedom, like when I arrange an Armenian folk song or when I compose my own composition.
In the beginning, jazz standards were mostly songs, especially musical or film songs. In instrumental performances – including yours – the words are lost. Are the original lyrics of these songs still important to you?
That's a very good point. Texts are really extremely important. The lyrics and the overall expression. For example, All The Things You Are is a happy love song. But just change the harmony a little bit and it becomes a little bit mysterious. I always try to explore the song a little bit more, to find out what the story is behind it. I want to know about the writer of the music and the lyricist. I want to know why or for whom he wrote his lyrics. For example, the lyricist of the song Laura had a very interesting story. She came from Europe from a Jewish family and immigrated to the United States during World War II. Then I come up with my own vision and only then do I really know what I want to do with the song, what story I want to tell with my arrangement.
The only song on the album, Invasion During an Operetta, is signed by you and your bandmates. What's the story behind it?
That's actually a bit of a hint. The piece was written as a collective improvisation of the whole band, but it's inspired by Sigmund Romberg's tune Softly as in a Morning Sunrise, which was written for an operetta. So it's a continuation of my work with well-known melodies, only in this case it's a collective improvisation inspired by this operetta and this particular song, which by the way you can also find on the album.
You recorded the basis of the album with a piano trio, but you invited wind players, saxophonists Mark Turner and Joshua Redman, and trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusir as guests on some of the tracks. Why them?
Yes, I invited three guests to the album. They're all musicians I've wanted to record something with for a long time. I've had the opportunity to play with them on stage in the past, but we haven't been in the studio together yet. And I've never actually played with Mark before. But I was surprised how easy it was to get along with him. He was in Los Angeles at the time I was recording the album and he just had the time, so it worked out beautifully. I consider Mark Turner to be a great jazz visionary. I feel the same way about Joshua Redman, whose music I grew up on. I've listened to a lot of his recordings with Brad Mehldau and other albums, for example. Ambrose and I went to the same school again, and we've played a few gigs as a duo recently. We both liked it, so I invited him to play on two songs on the album. So I guess I would say that my dreams came true during that crazy lockdown period. Luckily everyone had time at the time, otherwise I would have been planning something like this for years.
And how did bassist Matt Brewer and drummer Justin Brown end up in your studio band?
I've been wanting to do something with Justin for a long time, and with Matt too. While I have some quality and interesting guests on the album, I needed the core trio to be very strong as well. Justin and Matt are both extremely talented musicians. There's something magical in the way they respond to my playing and the way they come up with their own ideas without getting in my way. It's not easy to find musicians like that. The energy that these two musicians exude is a great complement to my energy. We've really managed to build a very good trio and I hope we'll record something together.
Now you're on tour, during which you'll play in Brno. You don't have a brass section with you, and the rhythm section is also different, with Jonathan Pinson on drums and Rick Rosato on bass. So what will we hear at the concert?
We'll play the music that's on the album, but because it's a different band, it won't be the same as on the record. I'm yet to play my first gig with my new bandmates. If we were talking a day later, I could have said more. But Jonathan Pinson in particular is an extremely fine player who accompanied Mark Turner on his latest album. I know him from other recordings as well, but on this album in particular he's absolutely brilliant. That's why I'm glad we can play together. I think we'll get along really well.
Final question. Can you tell us what will be your eleventh album?
I don't want to reveal anything yet, but I have ideas in my head. All I can say is that this will be one of my most ambitious projects. But that's all I really want to say at the moment.