It’s a special kind of magic when a musician and his instrument of choice seem to merge into one entity, one voice, one force of musical creation. Few musicians have achieved this almost symbiotic relationship with their instrument in the last decade, and Tigran Hamasyan is one of them, handling the piano like an extension of his very essence in his jazz/classical/world music-informed compositions. After 2015’s full-band record Mockroot and 2016’s collaborative effort Atmosphères (with Arve Henriksen, Eivind Aarset and Jan Bang), he now returns with the stripped-down An Ancient Observer, on which only he and his piano appear.
Honestly, I have always been more of a fan of Hamasyan’s works with a full band line-up (especially Red Hail) than of his solo piano recordings, so I didn’t really know what to make of An Ancient Observer at first. But over time, and with repeated listens, it became clear to me that this is some of his most intimate, psychedelic and atmospheric music to date, and I began opening up to what is some of his most intimate and atmospheric music to date.
Opening track “Markos and Markos“, which begins with a timid melody, is a great prospect for what the record as a whole has to offer. Slow- to mid-paced, tuneful piano rhythms are underlined by Hamasyan’s mimicking of an accompanying drummer. This reoccurring stylistic element stroke me as very odd in the beginning, but it’s actually rather charming in its playful simplicity. It paints the picture of Hamasyan as a passionate musician, who doesn’t consider himself too good to use his voice in an unorthodox way, in order to breathe even more of his personality into his songs.
A flurry of notes cascades through the air, interspersed with occasional high notes sung by Hamasyan. Before long, these single notes turn into fleshed-out, wordless vocal lines, levitating weightlessly above the prancing piano groove. The resulting delicate harmony which is “The Cave of Rebirth” is emphasized by the superb production, which is so clear that one can almost feel the hammers hitting the strings. “Egyptian Poet” later briefly combines both vocal aspects of An Ancient Observer, contrasting Hamsayan’s beautiful Arabic (in style, not language) chants with his more percussive delivery.
“Fides Tua” is possibly the slowest song on the record. Building up a steady flow of notes, constantly adding to the leitmotif established in its early stages, the song mostly meanders through its runtime at a leisurely pace. Understated melodies and the by now familiar percussive vocal mimicry keep things interesting, while a few more upbeat instrumental flourishes strewn in here and there add a certain flair of unpredictability to the otherwise very homogenous composition.
Finding a fitting conclusion isn’t easy when writing about a record as singular as An Ancient Observer; personally, I am quite convinced that I have never heard anything in the likes of it before. It’s not like the mixture of jazz, contemporary classical music and Armenian folk Tigran Hamasyan has come to be known for has ever been easy to classify/describe, but this record is extremely unique, even for his standards. And while I’m still not entirely sold on the whole one man, one piano approach, I did enjoy An Ancient Observer very much; it’s an exceptional offering from one of the most promising young (jazz) musicians out there today.
Notable Tracks: “Nairian Odyssey”; “Egyptian Poet”; “Fides Tua”
FFO: Avishai Cohen, Esbjorn Svennsson Trio, Brad Mehldau, Gilad Hekselman