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  • Writer's pictureMartin Cheney

Tigran Hamasyan: The Call Within


Armenian virtuoso pianist/keyboardist, Tigran Hamasyan, has this week unleashed his new album The Call Within on the world. Note the intentional lack of genre labels before "virtuoso pianist." While his influences are clear (and clearly honoured), his music almost defies categorisation. A dense, meaty fusion of jazz, prog-rock, Armenian folk, Moogy bass-synth funk and a Salt Bae peppering of nearly everything else, his oeuvre manages to be simultaneously all of the above and distinctly new. Together with the intimidatingly precise Evan Marien (bass) and Arthur Hnatek (drums), Hamasyan has composed and produced a fiercely original barrage of utterly satisfying, brain-melting sonic experiences. It's too early to state its influence on the landscape of jazz (and music in general) without being trite, but without fear of contradiction, this is Hamasyan's best work and also possibly the most exciting musical release of 2020 so far; I've never heard anything like it.

The first thing you need to do is cast aside any wistful and introspective assumptions that an album title like The Call Within might elicit. You won't be finding this in the Easy Listening section of JB Hi-Fi. All the effusive praise in the world won't change the experience for a listener who's not willing to undergo a musical experience for which 'assaultive' could be considered an accurate descriptor. However, the ability for anyone with even a skerrick of musical intuition or ability to, at the very least, appreciate the sheer technical mastery on display here should be immediate.

Hamasyan (and his merry trio of freakishly naturally-quantised beasts) juggle, manipulate and distort a frightening array of irregular meters and grooves with all the casual insouciance of a croupier shuffling a fresh deck. With the impressive amount of detail throughout, it is tempting to allow an analytical ear to hijack the listening process. Rest assured, many advanced musical scholars will (and already are - at the time of posting, a full transcription of at least one track was already available on YouTube, mere days after release) pick apart every perceivable element of every carefully-constructed second. This is important work, and I'm eternally grateful for the painstaking labour of my kindred contemporaries and colleagues for their commitment to bettering the universal understanding of our craft. But, for now, I just want to let the frenetic streams of bitonal magic wash over me as I violently sway my head from side-to-side in a kind of polyrhythmic stupor, making occasional, incoherent grunts and stank-face when another unexpected non-diatonic substitution smacks me upside the head.

The first track, Levitation 21 (a godsend of a title for those feverishly trying to deduce the time signature), is probably the most textbook Tigran track on the album, as well as the densest minefield of irregular grouping shifts, not to mention his most jaw-droppingly virtuosic composition since Vardavar (from his EP No. 1). It opens with a uniquely sparse, parallel octave piano introduction which sounds almost like a spiritual companion to What The Waves Brought, one of his most enduring works, particularly with online critics and transcribers. Hamasyan begins singing a chant-like melisma, strongly evoking his Armenian heritage, but also deftly distracting us from the imminent gearshift into meticulous chaos. About a third of the way through, there begins a fury of dangerously-syncopated and deliciously-voiced harmonies, the boldness of which made me laugh out loud upon my first listen, because I didn't know how else to react to what I was hearing. One of my dearest wishes is now to see this performed live; the stakes are high, with microsecond accuracy demanded by the oscillation between groups of four and five semiquavers at breakneck tempo. This is Vardavar for grown-ups.

I will say only two things about The Dream Voyager:

1) it begins with a total stylistic departure.

2) it concludes with the most infuriating fade-out in the history of Music.

I could write for hours about every monumental track on this album, and maybe one day I will. In these early days, though, the best way to appreciate Hamasyan's playfulness, inimitable skill and ability to weave tapestries of accompaniment that somehow manage to be both bursting at the seams and also constantly welcoming in new layers with each passing bar, is to just listen to it. This week's homework: try to make it to the end of New Maps without going absolutely mental.

"Now, Tigran, you are my teacher."

Herbie Hancock said that in 2015. Let that sink in.

The Call Within was released on August 28 and is now available through most usual music retailers.

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