Sunnyside Records (SSC 1090)

Free Improvisations

Armen Donelian | Solo Piano

  1. Preamble (Donelian)
  2. A Call To The Spirits (Donelian)
  3. The Witch's Cauldron (Donelian)
  4. Nostalgia (Donelian)
  5. Fractured Dream (Donelian)
  6. On The Dark Side Of The Moon (Donelian)
  7. When A Girl Dreams Of Love (Donelian)
  8. Beer Drinkers' Anthem (Donelian)
  9. Springtime In The Rose Garden (Donelian)
  10. Barren Landscape (Donelian)
  11. Young Asses At Play (Donelian)
  12. Blues Montage (Donelian)
  13. Pilgrimage (Donelian)
  14. Redemption (Donelian)


Recorded 1998-9, West Orange, NJ


Kirk Nurock (from CD notes)

In these rarefied miniatures, Armen Donelian has created a kind of classical surrealism. Here, great composers from the past seem to come and go inexplicably, as if haunting his hands.

We are treated to visits by Debussy, Bartok, Satie. Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff argue here. James P. Johnson cuts in, his stride all loose and cavalier. The rough detours and tender folkways seem whispered by the ghost of Charles Ives.

I do believe our gentle meister of ear training and counterpoint offered his hands to others that evening. Conjured anew through Armen’s wisdom and whimsy, all can be heard floating in the moonlight.


Dick Hyman (from CD notes)

Armen Donelian, a pianist of exceptional gig credits (how about Sonny Rollins, Chet Baker, Randy Brecker, and Joe Lovano?) has for some time been on to something else. With a firm jazz identity and a solid classical background, he's embraced the unique music of Armenia, which is his heritage, and twentieth century composers from Ravel down to the present. From these disparate sources plus some individual component which, fortunately, has yet to be decoded, he has produced in these 14 improvs moving but ultimately indescribable piano music.

It's like walking through a gallery you never knew about that's filled with mysterious and exquisitely painted abstractions. Very few pianists can work in this formless, spur-of-the-moment manner, making music that's "out" yet beautifully played and perfectly accessible. Armen Donelian does it wonderfully well.

Duke Ellington, who grew tired of labels, said simply that there was only good music and bad music. I would add that it takes a good listener, too, to take in Mr. Donelian's fancies, but the reward is substantial.


Fred Hersch (from CD notes)

Playing completely improvised "free" pieces at the piano involves very special challenges. Most importantly, the artist must generate form and content without the convenience of song structure. Pianists have taken many approaches – as varied as Cecil Taylor and Keith Jarrett. Armen Donelian uses his experience with European concert music, jazz and other genres to generate compositionally cohesive statements that make full use of the piano's resources and his world-class technique. Without being self-indulgent, he "gets out of his own way" and allows himself to be taken away by the music. This is a beautiful and personal recording.


Kenny Barron (from CD notes)

Full Moon Music, this new cd you're holding by Armen Donelian, is a wonderful collection of free improvisations for solo piano. To improvise freely over the course of 14 selections is no easy task and Mr. Donelian pulls it off magnificently.

From Preamble, which is the opening track, to Redemption, which is the last track, the music runs the gamut of emotions. Mr. Donelian uses his considerable technique and imagination to create pieces that are in some cases very lyrical, wistful and dreamy and in other cases pieces that are dark, dissonant and stormy.

Mr. Donelian creates his music from a palette of many colors and has a great sense of adventure and I, for one, look forward to the next excursion.


All About Jazz (2005)

Precious few listeners are aware of Armen Donelian. A tremendously talented pianist who has never had a major label signing nor has attached his name to a legend or star of some sort, Donelian has quietly created a body of work that at the very least is consistent, at best exhilarating. His latest release covers the same amount of ground.

Full Moon Music is the final installment in Donelian’s Grand Ideas series. Volume 1 - Wave focused on standards and popular song, Volume 2 - Mystic Heights focused on original compositions, and this third installment consists of fourteen spontaneous improvisations. While the sound of Full Moon Music may not instantly take hold of your senses like recitals from the likes of Keith Jarrett or Brad Mehldau, Donelian provides a constant stream of ideas and beauty that is hard to deny.

In fact, during many of his improvisations, such as the opening “Preamble,” his ideas are so complete that they sound like a pre-composed melody that you have known from somewhere before, but simply can not place. And while the songs are good, they do not move the listener into a place of discovery as often as one would hope.

Although the tone of the album never leaps beyond its lush midrange soundstage, Donelian does present a visual sense where every song has considerable variance and movement. Titles inform, or are informed by, the music associated with them, whether they are a “Barren Landscape,” “Pilgrimage,” or “Beer Drinker’s Anthem,” with its warbling, slightly out of tune sing-song quality.

Throughout the program, Donelian keeps his considerable technique in check, unleashing it only when it serves the song, as on “Young Asses at Play,” where his hands dance around each other, creating a whirlwind of punchy notes. He begins to incorporate extended techniques here as well, such as scraping the strings of the piano. Following this playground of sound, he comes back around to the opening whirlwind this time with a sense of weariness in the higher register and a much slower tempo, as if almost exhausted. And as the album continues into “Blues Montage,” he treats the listener to variations that range from deep grooves to manic right-hand movement over a repeating left-handed bass line, while working within the stated medium. In these moments, the music leaps forward and shows what a considerable talent Donelian really is.

Nonetheless, even with these flights of fancy, the sense of daring that one would expect to permeate an album of improvisations is not present at every turn. In fact, without prior knowledge of the album's conception, one would be hard pressed not to argue that many of these songs are not through-composed miniatures of nuance and beauty. Ultimately, this completeness is actually Donelian’s worst enemy and best asset.

- Michael McCaw


All About Jazz (2005)

The third chapter in pianist Armen Donelian’s Grand Ideas trilogy, Full Moon Music , stands alone in its ability to allow the listener to bond with the artist on a most personal level. Consisting of fourteen freely improvised solo piano portraits, the program masterfully tip-toes, walks, and runs along the thinnest of lines separating jazz and classical performance. Donelian is intimately familiar with the subtle nuances of his gorgeously warm 19th Century reconditioned Steinway and it serves as the vehicle for his extemporaneous expositions.

The lovely flowing lines of the introductory “Preamble” that beautifully segue into “A Call to the Spirits” hook you in until you are slightly jarred by the somewhat discordant “Witch’s Cauldron.” Each piece, save for the eclectic yet compelling excursion “On the Dark Side of the Moon,” with its rag-like middle, and the multi-hued “Blues Montage,” is a brief mood piece that reflects Donelian’s inner self expressed through his flawless touch. “Nostalgia” evokes the requisite longing without being too schmaltzy, while “Beer Drinker’s Anthem” is a comical paean to the amber liquid. The quick-moving “Springtime in the Rose Garden” uncovers the bustling behind the beauty, as opposed to evoking pastoral scenes, just as “Young Asses at Play” literally gallops through a spirited pianistic romp.

Where Donelian truly excels is in his use of subtlety, be it through time or sustain, to involve the listener in his own musings. I found myself listening to a piece and letting the music take my mind where it would and then checking the title to ascertain if our journeys matched. At times they did and at times they didn’t, but either way this is the type of album that is best experienced by closing your eyes with no other distractions and allowing the music to lead the way.

- Elliot Simon


Mittelland Zeitung (Switzerland, 2005)

It’s a well-known fact that solo recordings are extremely hard to market. Pianists especially will be compared to Keith Jarrett and his gorgeous output (Jarrett on the other hand sells well). But Jarrett is not at all a true handicap for Armenian-American melody and sound addict Armen Donelian. His approach is grown entirely on his own soil, i.e. original and individualistic, not to be compared with anybody else. Full Moon Music – Free Improvisations for Solo Piano is the long-awaited closer of the inspired and colorful trilogy Grand Ideas that drew the attention of Donelian fans before with Wave (standards) and Mystic Heights (original compositions). Also, famous pianists like Kenny Barron and Fred Hersch are filled with praise for Donelian’s utterly original jazz art (see booklet in the Full Moon Music CD). This music, completely improvised on the spur of the moment, is the art of an open-minded and always curious artist covering – in an extremely substantial tour d’horizon – the history of jazz piano as well as aspects of contemporary (classical) piano music. I’m sure that even Keith Jarrett will welcome Donelian’s CDs as a challenge and a bag full of inspiration!

- Jürg Sommer