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Tigran Hamasyan’s Shadow Theater: Jazz in Concept?

Karine Vann

Tigran Hamasyan
Shadow Theater
Release: 2013.

In 2005, Stuart Nicholson’s Is Jazz Dead (Or Has It Moved to a New Address?) posed a potent and controversial question to the musical world of jazz’s birthplace. Nicholson and his colleagues argued that the last thirty years has witnessed shockingly little development in jazz coming out of the United States. Wynton Marsalis’s efforts in legitimizing the genre as a cultural artefact has inadvertently placed the value of preservation over one of jazz’s most defining features: reinvention. Whether it is reinvention in response to the ever-changing demands of the consumer (R&B) or to the shifting soundscape of the modern world (funk), the survival of jazz has always depended on its adaptability. What, then, is jazz’s new address? Are we to find it in a particular place, or locate it in a genre? Armenian-American jazz pianist Tigran Hamasyan’s latest experimental album, while no longer stylistically jazz, offers a potential avenue. Can something that sounds so little like what we expect of jazz be, in many ways, more jazz than jazz?

Now known only as Tigran, much of Hamasyan’s early commercial success rested largely on his accomplishments within the mainstream, academy-oriented, competitive jazz of today. His new album Shadow Theater (2013) demonstrates his lack of dependency on the genre for continuing sustenance. In 2006 he distinguished himself from other jazz virtuosos with his ability to seamlessly mix the folk music of his native Armenia with the bebop style that dominates jazz today. These days, he is cautious about applying any labels to his music and feels the term ‘jazz’ applies only due to his use of improvisation. Yet ‘jazz’ as a marketing scheme is remarkably resilient. Jazz critic John Fordham’s review of Tigran’s headlining gig at the 2013 London Jazz Festival this past November in the The Guardian emphasized the performance’s dance-floor vibe which, while still enjoyable, betrayed the expectations of his more bebop-loving jazz audience. Performances marketed under the umbrella term jazz, yet having little relationship to the familiar sounds of bebop, are not an uncommon outside of the US. The assimilation of jazz music into pubs, lounges, and universities across Europe stands in contrast to its more conservative position in the US, where the sounds of jazz’s history are often interpreted as merely a means to a more modern end, rather than an end in itself.

Tigran’s accolades in the increasingly conservative and elite world of mainstream jazz have not deterred him from distinguishing the means from the ends. Establishing himself as a bebop-fusion-virtuoso was never the end for Tigran, a fact that has been clear since his 2009 album Red Hail, which drastically differed from anything produced up to that point. Tigran’s impressively elaborate arrangements of Armenian folk songs are one of the highlights of this album and have enjoyed positive response from both Armenian and Western audiences. Foreshadowing Shadow Theater, the album favors aggressive rhythms, repetitive hooks, and rock band instrumentation over virtuosic bebop licks and dominating solos.

Shadow Theater capitalizes on and builds off of the energy and stylistic independence implicated in previous albums. It does not fear simplicity; in fact, many tracks embrace the repetition and minimalism so often stigmatized in bebop jazz. As a result, the album’s openness to the here and now is apparent. As nearly every track will demonstrate, though, the album has been carefully crafted. It features fresh electronic techniques, where Tigran has taken the role not only of pianist, but also of Disc Jockey, toiling relentlessly to create catchy beats and ear-piquing timbres, like in “Erishta.” The album’s zenith is in the form of his early-release single “Road Song”, where improvisation takes a backseat, showcasing instead a repetitive strophic form, simple layered melodies, a mixture of orchestral and electronic instrumentation, and irregular Bartok-like meters. Other songs on the album (“The Poet”, “Pagan Lullaby”) are Armenian songs, which stray rather far from their folk ancestors in the forward thinking spirit of experimentation. They are a welcome development, particularly for the Armenian community, whose tendency is also to look towards the past for inspiration.

But the album is not without its faults. Tigran’s decision to appropriate the sacred Armenian hymn “Soorp Soorp” (entitled “Holy” on the album) in this commercial context is questionable. The only religious song to appear on one of his albums, Tigran has only modestly altered the hymn aside from some reverb and chord substitutions. His respect for what the music of the badarak, the Armenian religious service, represents to the Armenian community is obvious. But the song displays so little personal contribution, one wonders what it is doing on this commercial album at all.

Overall, Shadow Theater drifts on the cusps of so many genres and musical styles that at times we cannot be sure if Tigran’s experimentations are a result of pure musical inspiration or are indicative of inability to commit. But, while Tigran might fear commitment, the album is an impressive assertion of an independent voice in the face of today’s label-driven music industry. It reminds us that while bebop might be the dominant sound of ‘jazz’ today, the concept of jazz is still alive and well elsewhere.

Karine Vann reading for a MSt in Musicology at Jesus College, Oxford. She is a pianist with a passion for jazz and its subgenres..