Review: Tigran – a fable

As soon as I heard a fable by Tigran I thought of the painting Night and her Train of Stars by Edward Robert Hughes. There is a wonderfully dreamy feeling to this delicate, magical, romantic solo piano album, it transports you to ancient eastern lands by starlight, the gently tinkling shimmering piano and haunting vocals will lull a child to sleep. It is romantic because it is about passion, freedom and the exotic. But there is an exile’s loss in the coda which makes it a grown-up fable where you are reminded of your own loss and sadness.

Edward Robert Hughes - Night with her Train of Stars

Tigran is an Armenian pianist of whom Brad Mehldau said “There’s something original here [of Red Hail (of Pomegranate Seeds)] that excites me and makes me feel like, “Hmm, I haven’t heard that before.” Praise indeed!

Tigran won many prestigious piano prizes as a teenager and his early steps to fame remind me of my favourite classical pianist Krystian Zimerman who won the Warsaw Chopin Competition in 1975 at the age of 19. Tigran plays with Dhafer Youssef on the latter’s album Abu Nawas Rhapsody, with Mark Guiliana on drums. He doesn’t sit easily in any musical genre. Unlike Zimerman, Tigran seems at home in all musical settings from the Wigmore Hall to rock festivals. The noisy Clore Ballroom at the London Jazz Festival was soon silenced when he put his hands on the keyboard, a striking slight figure who blew us away wth his improvisation and stage presence.

A fable consists of solo piano interspersed with some very subtle electronics, whistling and voice. Most of the compositions are by Tigran, but even those not by him such as Someday my Prince will Come sound unmistakably his. There is a fairytale feel to this album which starts with the opening track Rain Shadow where the piano has a musical box feel, the notes chime like tiny bells. Although it is a solo piano album, Tigran’s voice adds a entrancing dimension, as does the whistling on several tracks. It is as if he is lost in a forest and is whistling to keep himself company. The tunes are instantly memorable, you find yourself humming with him as you are swept away by the magic.

Longing is my favourite track. It has a songlike melody which darkens as you realise this song is about exile. You are in an enchanted forest but it is far from home. Tigran has a gentle haunting voice and Armenian is a beautiful soft-sounding language. Electronics and overdubbing of voice provide a heavenly choir which float us away from our pain.

In the final track Mother, where are you? inspired by a medieval Armenian hymn, we are very gently brought back to earth, just like the ending of a dream. It is slower than the previous tracks, wistful and spacious, the perfect way to end a fable, there is no happy ending.

A fable Tigran Hamasyan, piano and voice, 2011

Rest in peace, Dave Brubeck

Rest in peace Dave Brubeck, 6 December 1920 – 5 December 2012. You probably ignited my love of pianists in general, and jazz pianists in particular, many years ago. My Mother had a vinyl copy of Time Out, the beautiful cover was my introduction to modern art. It was as modern as our new home, furnished in the colours, fabrics and shapes of the Festival of Britain, a time of optimism after hardship. As for the music, Take Five was part of my childhood. It will always conjure up happy times and later I would come to appreciate the subtlety of his compositions like the one below. It was the benchmark from which I discovered the sublime in music. It was perceptively used in Tim Hunkin’s magical Secret Life of Machines and later became the music Radio 4 listeners would choose as best encapsulating “Radio Guardian“, how Guardian readers would describe themselves if they were a piece of music. I wish strength and peace to his widow Iola, theirs was a very long marriage. He leaves us a wonderful catalogue of beautiful music.


This is gentle and exquisite:

Review: Phronesis, The North Wall Oxford, 1 December 2012

The penultimate gig of 2012 for Phronesis was held in the North Wall in Oxford on 1 December, a good venue for listeners with excellent sight lines, comfy seats and lovely mellow brick walls. Old fans were probably hoping for some new material and were well rewarded with at least three new compositions which were not attributed – perhaps a symbol of a new Phronesis, utterly confident in each other’s presence. As I sat there I thought back briefly to seeing the Brad Melhdau trio just two weeks ago at the Barbican, and it hit me – this trio has exactly the same confidence on stage as that well-established entity, only with more equality.

This evening felt daring – old and new were mixed, leaving us to guess which was which – all sounded fresh, deeper, matured like good wine. We heard material from all four Phronesis albums. The sense of continuity in sound and concept, despite changes in drummer and pianist, is amazing, and a tribute to Jasper’s vision. It’s not that the sound is static, it has evolved so naturally that you are unaware that you are learning, that you are adapting to their increasingly complex deep sound. So we started with a tune from the first album Organic Warfare, called Untitled#2 which sounded very stately on the Yamaha piano, five years on, it still worked and sounded new. From their second album we had Love Song and Happy Notes – the latter an ironic commentary on an unwitty heckler. Passing Clouds (from Walking Dark) had an Oriental feel, the gentle movements of Tai Chi made manifest in majestic, floating, billowing sounds with darker clouds evident at the close.

The new material has the gorgeous lyricism we have come to expect. Nomads had me holding my breath, it was so beautiful. Ivo has hit a rich seam of tunes lately – his That Syncing Feeling from Yatra is one of my pieces of the year. Another new piece started with a simple melody on bass that I was still humming in the morning – had I heard it before? No, it just comes naturally.

One of the joys of seeing this trio live is that you never know how Anton will create new sounds. At one stage, I thought he was striking the stands of his drums, perfectly in tune – actually he had cymbals on the floor I think. But the fact that I thought he was hitting his drum supports did not strike me as odd. Sometimes he plays silently, hitting the air for several beats, always he is mesmerising. You have to see them to really appreciate just how tightly they play now, with such empathy for each other.

So I felt very hurt for the band when a woman heckler demanded new, unrehearsed material. It may be Oxford but it was just plain rude to Jasper, it broke the moment. It was extraordinary, to me anyway, that the heckler could have thought that she was not listening to new material when we were. The fact that new material sounded well rehearsed when perhaps it was not is a tribute to the skills of this perfect trio.

Sadly, fans in the UK now have to wait until Phronesis’ next performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London on 5 April 2013 when we are promised some guests including the singer Olivia Chaney. It’s a big venue but they can fill it, physically and mentally, they are at the top of their game.