An Interview with Tigran Hamasyan

I met Tigran Hamasyan at a Montreal Starbucks hours before his solo piano show at L’Astral on February 11th.

He exuded a quiet composure, his thoughtful answers offering a counterpoint to my sometimes-erratic questioning.

While I’ve interviewed jazz musicians between sets, gleaning insights fueled by the energy of performance, this pre-show conversation held a different weight. It was grounded in anticipation rather than reflection.

Read Other Articles in Our ‘Jazz Musician Interviews’ Series!

I did see him perform that night, though.

And, as I realized later, the one thing I regret not mentioning in our conversation is Indian music—specifically, his thoughts on the tablas.

If you’ve listened to his album, “A Fable,” you’ve probably noticed the soft, rhythmic whooshing that underpins some tracks.

It sounds a little like a dampened cajon, but it’s his voice, masterfully used to accentuate the rhythmic drive of his playing. (This technique, known as bol in Indian music, mirrors how tabla players vocalize their hand movements.)

Despite his classical training, Tigran is a virtuoso with a flair for the unexpected.

While virtuosity can be a double-edged sword, he wields it with control. The performance I saw was a tapestry of burning lines and chords that hung in the air, dissolving into evocative silence.

There’s something uniquely refreshing about solo piano performances—a sense of liberation for the pianist and a special intimacy for the audience.

On tour, the pianist is self-contained; no grand piano to transport, no band members to coordinate with. The audience, in turn, experiences a raw connection with the artist.

Matthew Kassel: On your new album [A Fable], I only recognize one title, which is “Someday My Prince Will Come.” Are all of the other songs your own tunes?

Tigran Hamasyan: Well, not all of the tunes.

MK: There’s an Armenian folk song, right?

TH: There’s an Armenian folk song and there’s also a composition [“The Spinners”] by George Ivanovich Gurdjieff and Thomas de Hartmann. Gurdjieff wrote it and Thomas de Hartmann arranged it for piano. And I took that and rearranged it. And also there’s an Armenian, medieval hymn that I arranged, called “Where Are You, Mother?”

MK: I really liked the hymn. It was one of my favorites on the album. It had nice chords—I’m not sure exactly what they were, but I liked them anyway. So why did you choose “Someday My Prince Will Come”?

TH: Thanks. Well, I already had the arrangement for “Someday My Prince Will Come” before I even thought about recording a solo album. And when I started thinking about what I wanted to work the record towards, and what I wanted it to consist of, I wanted to do a standard, a couple of standards. But that arrangement of that song was pretty much the only arrangement that worked with the whole mood of the album. It worked with the rest of the compositions.

MK: What kind of mood would you say that is?

TH: Well, compositionally… I mean, it doesn’t necessarily have to be in a sad mood or a romantic mood. Just compositionally, you can’t play a burning standard next to an Armenian song.

MK: Well, I noticed that you ended “Someday My Prince Will Come” with a sadder chord. And it’s sort of a hopeful song, or maybe not, I’m not really sure.

TH: Yeah, well, it just wouldn’t make sense to end on a major chord. Musically, it didn’t make sense. And my whole idea for this arrangement was to take the most major sounding, happy sounding melody and completely revise it. Well, I’m keeping the melody as it is, but just completely having a dark, opposite harmony.

MK: Like in “The Spinners” as well?

TH: Well, yeah, that’s the Gurdjieff tune. I didn’t change a lot of stuff in that, though. It’s one of my favorite compositions.

MK: And have you ever sung before? Is this your first time singing in a recorded format?

TH: I actually used to be a singer when I was a child. But then when my voice changed, I didn’t follow up. I kind of started concentrating on piano. And recently, there’s things that I write where I hear a certain voice singing it. And I feel like I really want to sing, but, you know, it’s still in development. Like there’s things I can do and things I can’t do.

MK: What were you singing in? Armenian?

TH: Yeah, there’s one song [“Longing”] where I’m singing in Armenian. I actually took the lyrics from this really famous poet in Armenia. His name is Hovhannes Tumanyan. He lived in the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth, and I took two of his quatrains that he wrote, you know, four-line phrases, and I put it to this song that I wrote.

MK: Do you like poetry?

TH: I love poetry. I’ve read poetry since I was a kid.

MK: Just Armenian, or…?

TH: Well, mostly, other things, too, you know. But mostly Armenian, just because there’s a lot of incredible Armenian poetry.

MK: You don’t live there anymore, do you?

TH: No, but I visit. I’ve been visiting since 2009.

MK: But you were born there?

TH: Yeah, I was born and raised there until I was sixteen. And I started studying at USC, and then a little bit at the New School in New York.

MK: What year were you?

TH: I haven’t finished yet. I’m on an unofficial break [laughs]. I have like one year to go.

MK: Do you think you’ll finish it?

TH: Yeah, I will. Definitely. I just have to find the right time where I’m not traveling. The great thing about going to school was meeting other talented students and making projects with them and just playing.

MK: Was it like that in Armenia?

TH: It was, but I was in high school, like I finished high school and I left. I was in a classically oriented school.

MK: Are there any jazz schools in Armenia?

TH: There’s a jazz department in a conservatory, but it’s kind of sad. I was really lucky that I had this teacher who went to New York and studied with Barry Harris. And he came back to Armenia and started doing private lessons, and master classes, for free. And it was just like, “I need to teach this thing to people.” So I was lucky to study one year with this guy, and that’s why I really discovered what jazz was.

MK: So when was the first time you played in a group?

TH: Well, like I told you, I used to sing in a big band. And that was my first band experience, around ’97 or ’98.

MK: And what did you sing?

TH: Standards. There’s two songs that I definitely remember: “Dream a Little Dream of Me” and “What a Wonderful World.”

MK: Louis Armstrong has got some pretty popular versions of those songs. In your solo playing, it seems like the rhythm is not necessarily reliably consistent, like it goes back and forth between different pockets of rhythms. Did you have to practice that, or did you just start playing in that sort of way.

TH: You definitely practice—you practice everything. I mean, you have the vision and the desire to find what you want to say, but then it’s all about practicing to make your vision come true.

MK: OK. That’s usually what the answer is.

TH: Oh yeah, definitely. But it’s great to be exposed to a lot of different things so you can feel where you’re going. And of course I’m really lucky to have met some of the musicians that I’ve met. When I was a freshman in college, I did my first record [World Passion] with Ari Hoenig and Francois Moutin and Ben Wendel and that was a life-changing experience.

MK: Yeah? I interviewed Ari Hoenig a couple of months ago. And he has a pretty interesting sense of rhythm.

TH: Yeah. He’s a master of that. So that was pretty big for me. And then after that a lot of things opened up. After that record, I started really getting into exploring things. And it’s an ongoing project.

MK: Do you prefer solo piano?

TH: I can’t say that. No, I like doing projects, dedicating myself to one project for a certain period of time and getting a lot of stuff out of it and really exploring it deeply. And then, of course, you got to change, you know? I love playing with groups as much as I love playing solo. Especially the group that I have right now. For me, it’s really, really special.

MK: What’s that group?

TH: My quintet, with Nate Wood, Sam Minaie, and Wendel and Areni. It’s like a dream band for me.

MK: Do you write the compositions for it?

TH: I write the compositions, and we also do Armenian folk music that I arrange.

MK: Armenian folk music. Do you listen to those folk songs a lot? Were they a big part of your childhood?

TH: Yeah.

MK: If I’m not mistaken, historically, there’s a little tension between Armenia and the surrounding countries. Like there’s been lots of war in the past. Did you experience that when you were growing up?

TH: Yeah, well, the history makes the people. And there’s so much influence from that, you know? Music is influenced by that, what kind of history you have, what the music is about. You can like read the history in a song.

MK: Are there similarities between the folk music of Armenia and, say, Turkey?

TH: Certain similarities and influences, but the structure is completely different. Turkic tribes came from Mongolia, so their music got influenced by a lot of Middle Eastern music, especially Persian music, and also Arabic music. But originally Turkish music, that’s where it came from, so it’s closer to Mongolian music and Central Asian music.

MK: What do you think of Arabic music? Like, when I think of Arabic music, I think of quarter steps, like little, teensy steps.

TH: Yeah, I played with an Arab musician from Tunisia, and I would say the differences are just the melodic structures, the modes, and actually, the use of those quarter tones. Like, Swedish people have quarter tones, too. You know what I mean? So it depends on where you use it and how you use it. And of course the most important thing is the rhythmic structure of the song or the dance, and also the melodic structure.

MK: Do you know Fairuz? Or, Umm Kulthum?

TH: Fairuz? Yeah, and Umm Kulthum, man.

MK: I take Arabic at school, so I try to listen to some of these people and musicians. Speaking of Swedish music, I read that you like Meshuggah. Do you like any other metal bands?

TH: Yeah, I like Tool, I like Apex Theory, and yeah, Meshuggah. But I mean, I like the energy of these bands. But also I’m really into Meshuggah and Tool because of their creativeness. They’re incredible musicians. Rhythmically, it’s insane. They have a concept.

MK: Yeah, I just bought a Meshuggah album this summer. It was my first time buying a metal album, actually.

TH: Well, you shouldn’t think of Meshuggah as metal. I mean, first it might scare you, because of the energy of it. But after you get past that, you know, the style is addictive. But yeah, Meshuggah is from Sweden, but they don’t have anything to do with Swedish folk music, which I love. I mean, that’s my thing. Swedish and Norwegian—the Scandinavian folk music is unbelievable.

You Might Also Like

Best Jazz Albums of All Time

Banner with Best Jazz Albums of All Time text and photo of a record collection

Jazz is a culturally rich music that has evolved tremendously over the last century, from jazz big bands to bebop, from hard bop to free jazz, and so much more.

So our list of the Best Jazz Albums of All Time aims in no way, shape, or form to be definitive and all-encompassing. We simply hope it will provide some avenues of exploration for you to fall in love with the vibrant contemporary art form that is jazz music!

So read on and discover some of the greatest jazz albums ever recorded by icons, the likes of Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, John Coltrane, Robert Glasper, Wayne Shorter, Wynton Marsalis and more!!

Best Jazz Clubs in NYC: The Definitive Guide

Best Jazz Clubs in NYC

New York City is a mecca for jazz enthusiasts, boasting an impressive array of world-class jazz clubs.

From historic venues that have hosted legends like John Coltrane and Miles Davis to cutting-edge clubs showcasing today’s most innovative young artists, NYC offers something for every jazz fan.

Check out our list of Best Jazz Clubs in NYC, where we explore the top jazz clubs in NYC, taking you on a tour of the rich history, vibrant present, and promising future of the New York jazz scene.