Review: Tigran Hamasyan at the North Wall

Life

On 1st May, Armenian-American musician Tigran Hamasyan and his trio revisited the United Kingdom for the first time since his performance at the 2013 London Jazz Festival last November. This time around it wasn’t London, but Oxford, that enjoyed the pleasure of his company.

In 2013, Tigran cemented his transition out of the bebop jazz genre with his latest, genre-combining album, Shadow Theater. But it appears releasing a new album has not slowed down the creativity of the ambitious young pianist: in his concert at Oxford’s North Wall Arts Centre, most of his set consisted of music that is yet to be recorded.

Unlike the five-piece band he toured with at the London Jazz Festival, the show’s music was arranged for piano, bass, and drums, accompanied occasionally by synths and other beat-making equipment. The opening song, ‘Drip’, was an acoustic rendition of the version on Shadow Theater, which makes use of sampling and mixing techniques. It was an inspiring take on the original, and Tigran’s improvisational moments were a highlight in particular.

There are some sounds we take for granted in recordings, because it’s often impossible (for the untrained ear, at least) to tell if their origins are acoustic or digital. Tigran’s experimentations in acoustic soloing are breathing new life into live performance of electronic music. For example, his ability to acoustically recreate piano sounds that so convincingly evoke digital techniques – sharp, crisp, head-bumpingly repetitive – is, in my opinion, not only a testament to his well-trained ear, but also a remarkable musical achievement. It’s a unique solution to the issues posed by performing music originally conceived in the recording studio. We can be hopeful that Tigran will continue digging deeper into this improvisational style in future compositions.

The rest of the evening highlighted more recent compositions emerging out of the band’s rigorous rehearsal sessions. Following the show, Tigran’s skillful drummer and beat-maker, Arthur Hnatek, informed me that, in addition to a heavy touring schedule, the band rehearses at least two to three hours daily.

In constant search of his new sound, Tigran is totally fearless. When asked about his tendency to feature unfamiliar music in live performance, he answered that it was in the interest of developing his style, which, he admits, is difficult to describe. I would argue that the biggest shift in his compositional focus is rhythmic. Songs on his older albums, while still rhythmically unconventional, are often guided by well-crafted melodic ideas and follow more traditional, bebop-style emphasis on forms and solos.

His new compositional style is not so dependent on traditional forms, adopting a much freer jam session-inspired structure, which shifts aggressively and quickly between contrasting textures and rhythms.

Tigran’s experimentations on Thursday evening give us an idea of what to expect in the near future. The band will begin recording a new project in the next few days. But while his latest musical ideas may not be the easiest stuff to tap your foot to, they are genuine contributions to new music and definitely worth exploring, whatever genre you’re into.

 

 

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