Review Summary: Armenians As Leaders
When I saw Herbie Hancock and his outrageously talented band perform in 2019, I was astonished by the bold and brash atonal experiments that a man of 79 years was spearheading. Even Herbie himself, following a wry chuckle, freely admitted to the crowd, “You must think we're crazy.” As somebody who is ankle-deep in jazz history at best, I was reminded of something I had forgotten: that jazz has always been about looking forward, and that the stereotypical softening of musical sensibilities over time has less a place in jazz than perhaps any other genre.
Tigran Hamasyan is a contemporary jazz artist who is enough of a technical prodigy to have earned a hyperbolic Herbie Hancock endorsement, wherein he expressed that Tigran is his 'teacher' now. This praise is justified on many fronts. Tigran composes compelling songs without relying on excessive, intricate solos to showcase his flashy, but accessible, playing. Tigran has enough crossover appeal to attract the kind of listener that likes to leave comments commencing with the phrase, “Usually I'm a metal listener, but...”. Also, his name looks like the word tiger, but is pronounced with an Armenian gusto that makes the word tiger sound like shi
t in comparison.
Tigran Hamasyan's new album, The Call Within
, operates on a pulsing cycle of tension and release, creating a maelstrom of nervous excitement that sometimes pulls back for a kind of musical wide-angle, allowing for moments of reflection in spacey, Armenian melodies before smash-cutting to another car crash. The way Tigran refracts and reflects musical ideas into interesting variants is his strongest quality, and is made all the more impressive by the way he arranges these musical experiments into distinct, self-contained journeys, filled with smoothly-flowing drama and catharsis. Fans of harmonic theory as it relates to developing progressions will find their hands unconsciously creeping toward their nether regions during many a cut on this album. The track that best exemplifies this phenomenon is album highlight “New Maps”, the structure of which only becomes more impressive with repeat listens.
The three track run that kicks off The Call Within
showcases just about every trick Tigran Hamasyan & co. have up their sleeves. In “Levitation 21”, eerieness gives way to rapid fire piano runs, and the rhythm section gets the fu
ck down as soon as the opportunity presents itself; “Our Film” is a presentation of pristine production and giddy gorgeousity that veers into breakdown territory in its latter half; and “Ara Resurrected” is a winding, eight-minute epic of tonal vs. atonal warfare packed with hectic meter changes, containing closing minutes so ridiculously heavy that you'll forget that you're listening to a jazz album.
For those not sold on the style things could get a little repetitious in the album's middle section, particularly if you're not into djent-style breakdowns involving the piano's bassier keys. Weirdly enough, I think the album could have benefited from another interlude or bridging track to cement more of an 'album-as-experience' kind of vibe, while helping to diversify the flavours on display – yet this small criticism speaks to the efficacy of early, fuzzy interlude “At a Post-Historic Seashore”, “Old Maps” as a preemptive, motif-establishing cousin to “New Maps”, and spacious late-album wind-down “37 Newlyweds” in separating the more explicitly virtousic cuts. Better that I'm asking for more instead of less, in any case.
When a new listener asks for jazz recommendations, we tend to point them at “Davis, Mingus, the list goes on...” rather than sending them slowly backwards from contemporary works. Logical as this is from an historic perspective, I feel that with a genre as old and ubiquitous as jazz, a modern listener will have unwittingly have heard countless simulacrum of these classic sounds, taking away from the inimitable excitement that great jazz should inspire. Tigran Hamasyan's The Call Within
is exactly the kind of riveting, forward-thinking release that will entrance listeners new to jazz, as well as impress veterans of the scene.
Don't believe me? Just ask Herbie Hancock.