Discrimination and pogroms forced the Jews of Europe into exile; slavery brought Africans to the Americas; land clearances and near starvation sent the Scots around the globe. Every diaspora has its cause, or causes, and what fractured the Armenian people was genocide, which killed millions and dispossessed millions more of their ancestral lands during the early part of the past century. Only a rump country remains, a former Soviet republic nestled in the Caucasus Mountains and bounded by Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Iran.
Yet the lure of that place, coupled with family necessity, led American jazz pianist and composer Tigran Hamasyan to undertake his own reverse diaspora, returning to Yerevan from California as an adult, and making a new life there surrounded by music and relatives and love. Comfortable as that sounds, though, it hasn’t always been easy.
“It’s really a different kind of world here, compared to Europe or the U.S.,” the 30-year-old pianist reports in a Skype conversation from the Armenian capital. “There are challenges that are different here, and the challenge isn’t like living in New York. But there is definitely a lot of culture that I need for myself, like the soul food that I need, which is mostly the reason why I went back. Also there’s some kind of freedom I have here that I don’t have in other places. There are things that I can do that I wouldn’t be able to do if, say, I was living in L.A. or Paris. A lot of it has to do with the people and their traditions, and the way they live their life here. And also just being able to wake up and drive for 15 minutes and end up in a seventh-century monastery in the mountains… These are the things and places that inspire me to create, I guess.”
Hamasyan didn’t always admire his roots. “Actually,” he says, “I grew up listening to Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Later on I got into jazz, and I really hated Armenian folk music because all I wanted to play was bebop. But a few years later, some records came out on the ECM label—like Jan Garbarek records, Keith Jarrett records—and I realized that folk music can give you a different approach to improvisation, a different musical vocabulary you can use to improvise. So all these things led me into folk music in general, and to my own folk music.”
In solo performance, which is how we’ll hear him in Vancouver next week, Hamasyan mixes lyrical improvisation with Armenian-inflected melodies and, sometimes, his own rich, flexible singing. In Armenia, however, he’s been working with larger forces—most notably the Yerevan State Chamber Choir, as heard on his 2015 release, Luys I Luso.
“I’m basically arranging Armenian religious music, church music from the fifth to the 20th centuries, for piano and a choir,” Hamasyan notes. “This was something where I really had to be able to stay here to get this project going, because I had to find the right choir and work with them for six months nonstop before we could record. So it was a long process, but it was a really beautiful project—and definitely a learning experience.”
The learning continues: Hamasyan is currently working on a large-scale commission from the New York City–based vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth. In the as-yet-untitled work, the choir will interpret a 10th-century Armenian canto, or religious poem, with improvised counterpoint from the piano.
“I’ve gotten myself into a lot of trouble, because it’s a long piece and it’s complicated,” Hamasyan says with a laugh. “But I like a challenge!”