Sunnyside Records (SSC 4002)

Armen Donelian | Piano
Marc Mommaas | Tenor Saxophone

  1. Invitation (Kaper/Webster)
  2. All Or Nothing At All (Lawrence/Altman)
  3. Renwal (Donelian)
  4. Children's Song (Mommaas)
  5. Stargazer (Donelian)


Recorded live at New School University, April 3, 2003, New York, NY


CD liner notes by David Liebman

Much has been written about the art of the duo, particularly its musical and aesthetic requirements. As a musician who has done his share of duet playing, I can say that one could never write enough about this particular setting. It is the most demanding situation as far as technical virtuosity is concerned since both partners are so exposed. Matters of intonation for the horn player and the pianist’s dual challenge of playing solo and accompanying are obvious. But above all there is the need for the artists to tell a story because there is such heightened intimacy with the listener or audience if it is a live situation. Keeping interest is paramount and there is no drummer or bassist to assist in this regard. Next to solo playing (which believe it or not can be a rather solitary experience), in a duet one is as close to being naked in front of the public as is possible. Besides the obvious elements of melody, harmony and rhythm, the aspect of color is crucial for sustaining interest and arousing empathy from the listener. The performers must have such great command of their instruments that they are able to convey emotion and the story line through sound itself.

Armen Donelian is a true professional and one of the standard bearers of the New York piano scene for several decades having played with many of the greats of our time (Sonny Rollins, Mongo Santamaria, Chet Baker, etc.). In the early 1970’s, he spent a concentrated study period with my partner, Richie Beirach. Marc Mommaas, who grew up in the Netherlands and has spent a good deal of time in the past few years in New York, did some studying with me. Both Richie and I are very conscious of sound and the importance of being able to coax a wide variety of colors from one’s instrument. On this recording these two gentlemen generate a wide palette of sound to enjoy while sustaining interest, beauty and thoughtfulness throughout.

Their version of the title tune “All or Nothing at All” captures this range of nuance and sound. From Armen’s initial delicate piano intro leading into the melody chorus (where Marc’s tone reminds me in some ways of Stan Getz’s), the improvisations evolve in intensity as the walking bass line (that allows Marc freedom to be very loose with the beat) dissolves into a question and answer dialogue. Armen’s solo immediately launches into a polytonal interpretation after which Marc employs a beautiful sonic touch by using his high register played pianissimo nearing the end of the performance. Throughout this live recording (in which second takes and doctoring of the sound are unavailable options), the duo is in command of their sonic arena.

The original compositions all stand out both structurally and in the way the artists voyage through the various landscapes. Donelian’s “Renewal” moves through quiescence and lyricism to intensity and highly chromatic playing. Marc’s entrance on his original “Children’s Song” makes the tenor sound appear almost like a soprano. And Armen’s classic, “Stargazer” (which I had the pleasure to record years ago and is well known by musicians), gets the full treatment from chord changes to pedal point chromaticism as well as traversing a full range of emotions from joyous to dark and brooding.

Armen and Marc will make you feel like you are in the recital hall of New York’s famed New School with them. You can feel the audience’s intensity as they listen. The duo’s artistry is at the highest level because they are in full communication with each other, the music and the audience as well. This is art for serious people who enjoy being taken on an intense musical voyage.


Downbeat (2007)

On All Or Nothing At All, reedist Marc Mommaas and pianist Armen Donelian attack a mixture of standards and originals with a relatively straightahead post-bop feel. While they don’t employ any unusual concepts, their deeply intuitive connection is its own reward. The arrangements use lots of space, artfully juggle foreground and background roles, and reveal an impressive patience; this pair feels no need to fill every nook and cranny with sound. This sense of intimacy works because both players are fantastic listeners, and when Mommaas solos the pianist seems plugged right into his brain waves, perpetually altering his accompaniment to propel and caress the saxophone lines.

– Peter Margasak


Jazz Times (2006)

First, an admission: I am disinclined toward duo dates. To me, a piano and saxophone alone together often sound panicky, rushing to fill all that open space. They engage in a technical exercise, like fencing, with intellectual rewards more athletic than aesthetic.

All Or Nothing At All is different. To be sure, pianist Armen Donelian and tenor saxophonist Marc Mommaas set out a fierce, dense, austere contrapuntal recital. But they function within the duet format with such skill and creativity and taste that it is impossible for an open-minded audience not to have fun.

This particular open-minded audience filled the Jazz Performance Space at the New School University in New York City in 2003. The live sound is oddly monophonic yet captures the intimacy of the evening’s shared adventure, which is all about duality. For example, the 11 minutes of the title track contain a slow, luminous intro by Donelian; a horn-plus-accompaniment melody chorus with Donelian’s strong anchoring bass line and Mommaas’ free forays; frenetic, inspired, loose call-and-response dialogue; an eruptive solo by Donelian creating complex polytonal commentary on the theme; another, more liberated shared melody chorus; and a haunting, piping, high-register coda from Mommaas.

So I ask myself, what’s not to like?

– Thomas Conrad


All About Jazz (2006)

All Or Nothing At All is jazz featuring a program of standards and originals. In his notes for this CD, David Liebman ably assesses the risks and rewards of the duo format, where, next to solo playing, “one is as close to being naked in front of the public as is possible.”

Pianist Armen Donelian and tenor saxophonist Marc Mommaas convey many emotions and moods on their CD (recorded in concert at The New School) and employ a variety of approaches and, in Mommaas’ case, wide-ranging tonal colors. Each track is carefully sculpted; i.e., the title song begins with a light-toned sax melody lead, easing into an improvisation over a piano with a walking bass line, then heating up as piano and sax dialogue in phrases breaking up the flowing 4/4 before a complex piano solo. Other highlights include Donelian’s “Stargazer,” with pedal chords and a sax solo ruminating in long tones before breaking out in arpeggios, and Mommaas’ “Children’s Song,” a waltz lullaby with a lovely light touch.

– George Kanzler


Venezia News (Italy, 2007)

This most recent record of Armen Donelian, versatile American pianist of Armenian origin, compels us to reflect on the challenging art of duo playing. To this end, the introduction of saxophonist and composer David Liebman, who briefly contributed to the artistic maturation of Donelian’s partner, tenor saxophonist Marc Mommaas, is very helpful.

This disc, a live recording made at the New School University Jazz Performance Space in New York City with no “alternate takes” typical of studio recordings, presents two well-known standards, the title track and “Invitation,” two compositions by Donelian, “Renewal” and “Stargazer,” the latter often played by jazz musicians, and one by Mommaas, “Children’s Song.” “Stargazer,” literally “one who stares at the stars,” is also the title of Donelian’s first record, in which Donelian leads a trio, complete with the Puerto Rican bassist Eddie Gomez and drummer Billy Hart, who is in demand and present in a variety of situations, not the least of which is the American Italian quintet of our trumpeter Marco Tamburin.

On the one hand, the standards are characterized by spirited dialogues between the piano and sax, sustained by Donelian’s elegant swing that stimulates a variety of hot improvisations by Mommaas, and on the other the three originals underline the poetic side of the musicians, with a more airy saxophone sound and more delicate and intimate piano playing.

This record bears repeated and careful listening, as with each one discovers new characteristics of the style and technique of the two musicians.

– Giovanni Greto