Sunnyside Records (SSC 4018)

Armen Donelian | Piano
David Clark | Bass
George Schuller | Drums

All songs composed by Sayat-Nova (PD) except (**) by Khatchatur Avetisyan. All arrangements by Armen Donelian.

DISC 1 - SOLO PIANO

  1. Where Do You Come From, Wandering Nightingale? / Oosdi Goukas Gharib Blbool?
  2. I Have Traveled The Whole World Over / Tamam Ashkhar Bdood Eka
  3. Without You, What Will I Do? / Arantz Kez Eench Goneem?
  4. Surely, You Don't Say That You Also Cry? / Ches Asoum Te Latz-es Eli?
  5. I'll Never Know Your True Worth / Hees Koo Gheemetn Cheem Geetee
  6. I Call Lalanin / Hees Ganchoom Eem Lalaneen
  7. Praised Among All Instruments (Kamanche) / Amen Sazi Mechn Govats (Kamanche)
  8. With The Nightingale You Also Cry / Blbooli Hit Latz-es Eli
  9. Were I Offered Your Weight In Pearls / Tekouz Koo Kashn Markrit Tan

DISC 2 - TRIO

  1. King Of Cathay / Shahkhatayee
  2. Your Headdress Is Silver And Silk / Tasdamazt Sim Oo Sharbab
  3. My Sweet Harp / Eem Anoush Davigh**
  4. You Are Golden And Exotic Brocade / Tipa Oo Yenkitoonia
  5. As Long As I Draw Breath / Kani Vor Jan Eem

CREDITS

Disc 1: Recorded January 2013, Hudson, NY except (*) recorded May 2013, Firehouse 12 Studio, New Haven, CT.
Disc 2: Recorded January 2013, Firehouse 12 Studio, New Haven, CT.
All Mixed, mastered July - November 2013, Firehouse 12 Studio, New Haven, CT


PRESS

Downbeat (July, 2014) ** 3-1/2 stars **

While the 18th-century Armenian troubadour Sayat-Nova may not be a household name in the Western world, he has long been recognized as one of the greatest poets and troubadours to emerge from the Caucasus region. On the two discs that make up Sayat-Nova: Songs Of My Ancestors, the Armenian-American pianist Armen Donelian has prepared a deeply felt - and often strikingly beautiful - tribute to this distant master.

Most of Sayat-Nova’s songs survive only as simple melodies, offering considerable scope to the modern arranger. Donelian - who, in addition to having a long career in jazz, was educated in harmony and counterpoint - has broken his arrangements into two distinct groups: The first disc features solo piano versions of nine of Sayat-Nova’s compositions, while the second offers four more Sayat-Nova songs (plus one from Armenian folk musician Khachatur Avetisyan) performed as a trio with bass and drums.

The solo piano arrangements are, by far, the more extraordinary. Although Donelian is respectful of the original melodies, he also appears largely unbound by the constraints of any particular musical approach, using the spare frame of Sayat- Nova’s compositions more as a compass than a map. His expansive improvisations occupy a beautifully elusive place somewhere between the taciturn introspection of Erik Satie’s Gnossiennes, the modal lamentations of John Zorn’s Masada songbook and the genial invention of Art Tatum’s solo recordings. There are countless exquisite moments to be found within these nine extended meditations.

Next to such a carefully wrought offering, the trio disc cannot help but sound somewhat conventional. Although bassist David Clark and drummer George Schuller provide an agile and tightly focused rhythm section - and Donelian’s improvisatory flights are constantly informed by a graceful melodic sensibility - the piano trio format has a tendency to downplay the unconventional exoticism that makes the first disc so compelling. The trio performances are never less than satisfying, and there are numerous passages where the combo really cooks, but there is little on the second disc to match the revelatory quality of Donelian’s solo explorations.

In the course of his life, Sayat-Nova composed hundreds of songs, and their singular melodic language - at once disarmingly foreign and strangely familiar - seems to have offered Donelian a considerable well of inspiration. On the strength of the first disc alone, one can only hope that the songs on Sayat-Nova: Songs Of My Ancestors represent the beginning of a continuing partnership between the 18th-century master and his 21st-century disciple.

- Jesse Simon

 

Jazz Times (June 18, 2014)

Through the years, pianist Armen Donelian has worked with figures as diverse as Lionel Hampton, Chet Baker, Mongo Santamaria, Sonny Rollins and Paquito D’Rivera, as well as the fusion group Cosmology. On this two-CD set, he pays tribute to the 18th-century Armenian poet and minstrel Harutyun Sayatyan, known as Sayat-Nova (“King of Songs”). Acclaimed as one of his country’s foremost musicians and folk lyricists, Sayat-Nova performed in the court of Erekle II of Georgia until he allegedly fell in love with the king’s sister, resulting in his expulsion. He eventually became a priest in the Armenian Apostolic Church; he was killed in 1795 by the army of Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar, for refusing to denounce Christianity and convert to Islam.

Sayat-Nova, then, aside from his musical and lyrical gifts, was obviously a strong-willed man possessed by powerful, sometimes conflicting passions. Donelian eloquently captures this complexity. His readings of Sayat-Nova’s songs convey both spirituality and melancholy, emboldened by his forceful attack and the linearity of his improvisations. While remaining true to Sayat-Nova’s basic themes, he adds embellishments drawn from his own lifelong immersion in European classical music and American jazz as well as the traditional music of his Armenian heritage.

Disc 1 features Donelian on solo piano; disc 2 adds bassist David Clark and drummer George Schuller (sounding more “jazz” in conception and execution, if such a label must be used). Donelian’s meld of classicism and modernism - both tempered and enriched by his subtle but palpable wit - reflects Sayat-Nova’s own gift for balancing the dignity of the courtier with the romanticism of the minstrel. “I Call Lalanin,” allegedly a coded love song Sayat-Nova wrote for his secret royal paramour, is appropriately regal yet infused with both longing and - in Donelian’s ticklish upper-register curlicues - a playful sensuality. The desolation of “With the Nightingale You Also Cry” is redeemed by the bedrock dignity Donelian brings to it, along with the unabashed joy of discovery and new beauty that permeates his playing. Donelian slyly acknowledges the lineage between the modal nature of traditional Middle Eastern music and modern pop and jazz by inserting brief references to the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” and Miles’ “All Blues” into the brooding “Without You, What Will I Do?”; he infuses “Surely, You Don’t Say That You Also Cry?” with playful high-treble fillips and a propulsive, contemporary-sounding drive.

On the trio outings, Donelian relaxes his timbre and his tempo to ease into an unforced yet sturdy swing. “My Sweet Harp,” by the 20th-century Armenian composer Khachatur Avetisyan (the only non Sayat-Nova offering here), references Brubeck in both its time signature and its theme. “As Long As I Draw Breath,” befitting both its title and the trajectory of the composer’s life (as well as Donelian’s own approach toward, and realization of, Sayat-Nova’s vision) is imbued with a feeling of steadfast determination, expressed with gentleness and grace.

- David Whiteis

 

Downbeat Editors' Pick (April, 2014)

Armen Donelian is a massively gifted pianist. There’s a graceful confidence and touch to his approach that’s rooted equally in jazz, classical and folk music. On Sayat-Nova: Songs Of My Ancestors, Donelian effortlessly intertwines the three while digging into the music of his Armenian ancestry. The songs of Armenian musician Sayat-Nova (1712–’95) have been handed down from generation to generation. Donelian grew up listening to this music, and on his new two-CD set, he updates the poet-composer’s work with a jazz sensibility and classical sheen to create a very modern-sounding joy. On the first disc, Donelian performs solo, demonstrating a command of the piano that few on the scene today can match. He lavishes in the lyricism of “Where Do You Come From, Wandering Nightingale? / Oosdi Goukas Gharib Blbool.” He adroitly straddles the folk and classical realms on “Surely, You Don’t Say That You Also Cry? / Ches Asoum Te Latz-es Eli.” He squeezes every ounce of heartache from “With The Nightingale You Also Cry / Blbooli-Hit Latz-es Eli.” He aches with love and sophistication on the eight-minute track “Were I Offered Your Weight In Pearls / Tekouz Koo Kashn Markrit Tan.” For the second disc, Donelian adds bassist David Clark and drummer George Schuller to the festivities. On “King Of Cathay / Shahkhatayee,” the trio glides across the sands, with Clark and Schuller maintaining an infectious, loping beat that’s combined with Donelian’s massive chops. Another lovely tune, “Your Headdress Is Silver And Silk / Tasdamazt Sim Oo Sharbab,” begins with Donelian stating the melody solo, and then Clark adds subtle arco work. When Schuller joins in, the tune takes off for a beautiful ride. “As Long As I Draw Breath / Kani Vor Jan Eem,” the closing number, tugs at the heartstrings and then explodes into an improvisational dream. The trio is locked, loaded and on fire. What’s so interesting about this 14-song program is that the melodies seem familiar yet hard to place. On one level, Donelian is reinforcing the importance of Sayat-Nova as a composer. But in the process of bringing these songs front and center, the pianist is also finding new inspiration in the ancient. It’s a powerful blend. On April 27, Donelian, Clark and Schuller will perform songs from Sayat-Nova at Castle Street Cafe in Great Barrington, Mass.

– Frank Alkyer

 

Rifftides Recommended (May 5, 2014)

Alone and with a trio, Donelian plays works that inform his sense of who he is and confirm that great music is timeless and universal. The music of the Armenian composer Sayat-Nova (1712-1795) is redolent of Middle Eastern values, but as we become accustomed to musical idioms of the world melding, it would sound astonishingly modern even without the jazz and classical sensibilities that Donelian applies to it. Some of the solo pieces, notably “Without You, What Will I Do?” could have been written last week. Others prefigure Chopin. The trio performance of the minor “My Sweet Harp” with bassist Dave Clark and drummer George Schuller has profundity and sadness that Leos Janácek refined a century later. This two-CD album is certain to be regarded as one of 2014’s best. The invaluable 15-page booklet that can be downloaded from the CD should have been included in the package.

– Doug Ramsey

 

New York City Jazz Record (April, 2014)

One can relate to pianist Armen Donelian’s Sayat-Nova: Songs of My Ancestors on many different levels. While most will not be familiar with the melodies of the 18th century Armenian minstrel whose corpus of work is presented here, Donelian uses jazz and classical styling to make the music immediately accessible yet keeping its cultural richness intact. Similarly, an American-born jazz musician re-experiencing his own ethnically distinct music through jazz is by now a familiar journey. An extensive digital booklet presents the history of both Sayat-Nova and Donelian in detail and anyone can also relate to the mixture of joy and pathos of continuing to breathe life into music and culture almost wiped out through genocide.

The first CD consists of solo piano renderings. The deceptive simplicity of opener “Where do you come from, Wandering Nightingale” engages the listener with strains of pathos, which prepares for the extremely powerful lament of “I Have Travelled the Whole World Over” and childlike wonder of the elegant melody within “Without You, What Will I Do?” Nothing, however, prepares for the sadness of “I’ll Never Know Your True Worth” or melismatic prayerfulness of “With the Nightingale You Also Cry”, as Donelian artfully combines Eastern European modes with jazz improvisation. “Were I Offered Your Weight in Pearls” concludes the disc. Recorded live, it is light-hearted and sets up a striking contrast to the previous pieces, providing a welcomed emotional respite and leading into the more upbeat trio performances that follow.
The second CD is as worldly as the first is introspective. With bassist David Clark and drummer George Schuller, Donelian takes the emotionally prepared listener on an instructional tour of the world according to Sayat-Nova and beyond. An upbeat “King Of Cathay” opens up in the Orient while “Your Headdress Is Silver And Silk” cleverly constructs a royal wedding. “You Are Golden And Exotic Brocade” reaches across time to mix a 19th Century melody with 21st Century jazz. Sayat-Nova’s best-known melody, “As Long As I Draw Breath”, returns to his inner self with a classically-inspired and masterful presentation. Sayat-Nova: Songs of My Ancestors is a moving performance of complex melodic structures, which, in Donelian’s expressive hands, reveal universal emotions of passion, sadness, pain, wonder and joy.

- Elliott Simon

 

New York Music Daily (March 24, 2014)

The first thing that comes to mind when listening to pioneering pianist Armen Donelian (http://www.armenjazz.com)‘s new double album Sayat-Nova: Songs Of My Ancestors – due out on April 15 from Sunnyside (http:// www.sunnysiderecords.com) – is why aren’t these songs world-famous? Thanks to Donelian, someday they might be. With his new arrangements for solo piano and trio with bassist David Clark and drummer George Schuller, Donelian has reinvented over an hour and a a half worth of music by iconic 18th century Armenian composer Sayat-Nova. Celebrated as a national hero and a paradigm-shifting intellect whose plaintive, angst-ridden, often shattering melodies both resemble and predate Chopin by practically a century, Sayat-Nova is also renowned as a lyricist. He was a master of the kamancheh fiddle and the tar lute. His main gig was as a court minstrel for a local tyrant, a relatively cushy job, but one from which he was eventually fired. Within his compositions’ elegant, often enigmatic phrasing, there’s often a seething if restrained anger, and more frequently an absolutely depleted, wounded sensibility. We don’t know why Sayat-Nova got canned, or why he subsequently more or less abandoned music – at least professionally – joined the priesthood and later retired to a monastery. He may have known or figured out too much for his own good – or slept with someone he shouldn’t have.

Donelian’s feeling of kinship with Sayat-Nova is as strong as his passion for Armenian music in general, having played Armenian-influenced jazz for many years with reedman Souren Baronian, drummer Paul Motian and chanteuse Datevik Hovanesian. The operative question, obviously, is how to translate this music – written to incorporate the microtones of the fiddle and voice – for the rigid digits of the piano. Donelian does it chromatically. Yet while improvisation is the key to this whole thing – as it assuredly was when Sayat-Nova himself was playing it – Donelian keeps the main themes true to the originals. His arrangements and melodic variations maintain a similar consistency with the themes’ emotional content: this is a deep album. It’s not at Spotify yet, but watch for it after the release date.

The first of the double-disc set is solo pieces. What’s most stunning is how contemporary this music sounds even though some of it is 250 years old. The bittersweet lullaby Without You, What Will I Do? could pass for a rock ballad from the 70s, as does the gentler but considerably more jaunty I Call Lalanin (ostensibly a coded message to the composer’s secret love). The only concert recording here, Were I Offered Your Weight In Pearls switches up the time signatures as it recalls Dave Brubeck taking a stab at Chopin. The Polish composer is evoked – or, more accurately, prefigured – most vividly in the angst-ridden I’ll Never Know Your True Worth (the famous E Minor Prelude comes to mind).
Donelian brings out a similarly grim bitter edge and sense of longing to the plaintively crescendoing Where Do You Come From, Wandering Nightingale?, and the foresaken stranger’s lament I Have Traveled the Whole World Over. He blends elements of the Middle East and the neoromantic in Surely, You Don’t Say That You Also Cry? and Praised Among All Instruments. a late-career danse macabre that may foreshadow the composer’s downfall. The downright scariest of all the songs here is the Erik Satie-esque With the Nightingale You Also Cry, with its stunned, spaciously pitch-black sense of loss.

As you would expect, the second cd, with its jazz arrangements, is more rhythmically complex and improvisational. King of Cathay grows from a careful stroll with hints of Asian music to dancing variations; Your Headdress Is Silver And Silk builds out of an otherworldly, rapt intro with allusions to ragtime. You Are Golden And Exotic Brocade rises from a stately march to a snazzy, blues-tinged racewalk. The best of the trio pieces is the long, serpentine As Long As I Draw Breath, which foreshadows Satie again, Donelian bookending a long, loungey interlude with a morose waltz. There’s also a ringer here, My Sweet Harp, by a more recent Armenian composer, Khachatur Avetisyan, with a similar blend of creepy, stately and eventually Arabic tonalities. Donelian has stated that this is a lifelong labor of love for him, the high point of an already distinguished and original career and he’s probably right. He plays the album release show on April 4 at 7:30 PM at the Tenri Institute, 43A W 13th St.; $20 standing room tix are available.

 

Armenian Weekly (April 17, 2014)

New York-based jazz pianist Armen Donelian’s latest album proves it is possible to celebrate Armenia’s rich cultural history from a contemporary perspective. The album “Sayat Nova: Songs of My Ancestors,” to be released nine days before the 99th memorial of the 1915 genocide, pays tribute to the 18th-century Armenian poet and troubadour’s revered original melodies, but does not shy away from more modern influences, most notably, mainstream jazz and classical music.

Having arrived in Armenia for the first time in 1998 as a performer at Yerevan’s First International Jazz Festival, Donelian saw a unique opportunity and applied for a Fulbright Research Grant to return for a more extended period. Despite immediate obstacles, ranging from basic language barriers to more complex ideological ones, Donelian’s return in 2002 saw him teaching the first formal course in American jazz, bebop style piano at Yerevan’s Komitas State Conservatory. He brought with him resources for jazz pedagogy and started a small jazz library in the conservatory at a time when, as he puts it, “materials had a tendency to disappear.” His time in Armenia has made an impact on not only his own personal musical aspirations, but also on current generations of Armenian musicians.

What inspired Donelian’s selection of Sayat Nova as the center of this project? Although the name Sayat Nova is familiar to Armenian households across the globe, his persona is shrouded in obscurity. Yet his contributions to Armenian literature have often been “compared to Shakespeare’s” and in music, “the beauty of his melodies rank with those of the greatest European composers.”

Donelian’s humility and appreciation for what Sayat Nova’s legacy represents to the Armenian community is apparent in the album’s booklet, he says. “I did not change this music. It changed me.” Sayat Nova’s music is just one piece of a puzzle within the larger scheme of Armenia’s vast cultural achievements, and Donelian’s liner notes place the music within a larger framework of the poet’s life and continuing legacy. The booklet is also replete with reflections and comments by Donelian himself on the album’s music.

Adapting the traditional folk melodies to solo piano was not always an easy task for Donelian. In a Skype interview, he explained some of these obstacles in greater depth: “The problem as a pianist is twofold. One…what you’re trying to do is imitate on a well-tempered instrument the sound of music that was created on a mobile instrument. That’s number one. Number two is that most of this music, at least in its original, folk form, is monadic. That is, it’s only a single line of music. Then, harmonies are only implied by the path of the melody. So, as we listen to that melody, we might get a sense of a harmonic or tonal center. But there’s no functional harmony… You know, when you encounter folk music of that nature, it’s quite a different mindset, a whole different approach. So, when I practice this music, what I’m trying to do is hear the music on its own terms, yet relate it somehow to the tradition and style that I’ve devoted my life to learning. And that’s taken some time. But I feel like with this new project of Sayat Nova music, I’ve done something that I’m really proud of and feel very good about. Because I’ve preserved the melodies of Sayat Nova, and infused them with harmonies that are truly contemporary.”

The incubation period for the album has been several years in the making, evident in Donelian’s skillful arrangements. Those for solo piano and jazz combo reflect a lifetime of musical encounters in and outside the realm of Armenian music. Some of the tracks on the album take on a highly classical character, as in “Tamam Ashkhar Bdood Eka,” which incorporates a wide range of 20th-century stylistic textures. Other songs, like “Tekouz Koo Kashn Markrit Tan,” draw heavily from Afro-Cuban elements, reminiscent of his time playing in Mongo Santamaria’s New York City jazz band in the 70’s. The album consists of two discs, with the second containing tunes arranged for jazz trio (piano, bass, and drums). Fans of Soviet-Armenian composer Arno Babajanian might recognize the tune in the song “As I Draw Breath,” which is the same heart-wrenchingly melancholic folk melody Babajanian used in his solo piano piece, “Elegia.” In a modern world in which the music of other cultures is so often trivialized and appropriated for the music industry’s commercial objectives, “Sayat Nova: Songs of My Ancestors” is a breath of fresh air. Its integration of Armenian culture in this commercial context does not go unexplained. And though not every listener may make it through Donelian’s lengthy album liner notes that detail Sayat Nova’s past, its presence on the album is a comforting testament to Donelian’s dedication to a larger cause: the present state of Armenia’s culture, as well as its future.

– Karine Vann