[Nonesuch Records, 2015]
Intro: Dimitris Kaltsas
When asked to choose between bands and solo albums, one will probably choose teamwork for many reasons that, at least within or in relation to the rock element, are historically justified. However, the peculiarities of many musicians who choose the solitary artistic path are enough to distinguish them and pique our interest. Such is the case of Tigran Hamasyan.
Born in Gyumri, Armenia, Hamasyan began playing the piano at the age of three and began studying jazz at the age of nine. At the age of 18 he released his first album entitled World Passion and despite the fact that in this as well as in the next (New Era, 2008) he relied much more than later on jazz standards, his emphasis on songwriting and aesthetics were impressive from the start, especially given his age.
The turn of his career took place in 2009 with Aratta Rebirth: Red Hail, where the characteristic pianistic jazz of the award-winning Tigran was mixed with the traditional music of his homeland and progressive rock, in a great result. Since then the style has changed again to the purely pianistic A Fable (2011) and the more vocalistic Shadow Theater (2013). This year, the 27-year-old Hamasyan based in Yeremen returns with Mockroot, in which he flirts once again with the progressive element.
Jazzing the roots
The description of everything we hear on Tigran Hamasyan’s new album can easily be made by reading his biography. Tigran is an Armenian pianist who was established in America from the age of 16 studying jazz, listening to rock music since his childhood, when he dreamed of becoming a thrash metal guitarist! From the first notes of Mockroot, one can immediately understand the influence of the Armenian tradition on the music of the young pianist, while at the same time almost all aspects of his musical character begin to unfold.
The basis of the album is the piano of course, played on the rhythmic substrate offered by the bass and the drums, while in several places male or female vocals are added to the equation, which emphasize the folk character of the compositions. Nevertheless, the logic of the compositions refers to avant-prog paths, with jazz influences and almost metal outbursts. The fact that this style of music is mainly supported by the three aforementioned instruments is certainly admirable, but in the almost one hour that the album lasts, the listener may get a little tired.
The perdormance is really impressive. Hamasyan is a talented pianist who can play folk melodies with the same ease that he acrobatizes on complex themes and rhythms. Special mention should be made of the rhythmic choices, since the impressive polyrhythms are really magnificent.
The album as a whole is very good, with some masterpiece tracks such as Kars 1 (cover of an Armenian traditional song) and To Negate. Compositionally, however, it does not stand on the same level throughout its duration, since at times the executive ability and skill exceeds the level of the compositions. The monotonous orchestration and the almost religious obsession with the sound of the piano does not help, while the production could also be a little better, especially with the sound of the drums.
Despite its ups and downs, Mockroot is recommended to all those who find it interesting to mix folk melodies with jazz and avant-rock sounds (like almost the entire discography of the 27-year-old Armenian).
7.5 / 10
Diversity and self-restraint
The case of a child prodigy is always very special and usually it turns out to be at least problematic. Even though Tigran Hamasyan was treated from a very young age as a piano genius, he managed to find and impose an impressive balance in his stylistically diverse record with a controlled or even reduced egocentrism in a strictly solo career. The main goal of the most likable Tigran lies in aesthetics and not in commercial success (which he tasted with A Fable in 2011).
In Mockroot the amazing pianist returns to the progressive side he first revealed to us in Aratta Rebirth: Red Hail (maybe it’s not coincidental that we hear the warm voice of Areni Agbabian here as well). Armenian traditional music and the jazz base of Hamasyan’s music are again perfectly combined and the difference from 2009’s album is the clearly increased aggression that is evident in most of the tracks, which here is perfectly combined with the intense avant-garde character of the melodies as well as folk lyricism. The result sounds darker thanks to the choice of complete absence of guitar and the accompaniment of all kinds of Hamasyan’s keys exclusively by a rhythm section. These genuinely melancholy sounds – minimalist or labyrinthine – perfectly match the absence of color in Vahram Muradyan’s artwork. The symphonic element penetrates perhaps for the first time so strongly in the post-bop version of the Armenian musician (e.g. The Roads that Bring Me Closer to You), who here shares the compositional weight more evenly between melodic phrases and rhythmic acrobatics. However, this parity may make it difficult for Mockroot to sound smooth, even to the 4/4 haters. Despite the very successful mixing of very different elements, Hamasyan chose to complicate the rhythms by changing dense single meters, which, may sound masterful (e.g. The Grid),but mainly is tiring, because it sounds like an alibi, rather than an intelligent prog trick (as it should be). However, as unnecessary as this self-restraint is, the album does not lack excellent compositions (apart from The Grid), such as Kars 1 and To Negate, two intense prog-folk tracks (the first is a cover in traditional Armenian song), with beautiful vocalese interpretation of the multi-talented creator and performer, as well as the wonderfully intense Entertain Me.
In conclusion, Mockroot is an album that explores in detail new fields of expression for Tigran Hamasyan, addressed to listeners of melodic and adventurous jazz, progressive (avant-prog or symphonic) and oriental folk music with dynamic phrases, lyricism, unpredictable stylistic changes and perfectionist rhythmic transitions. Those who like at least some of the above will find it very interesting, to say the least. The rest probably do not read these lines anyway.
7.5 / 10