This is pianist Tigran Hamasyan’s second ECM album in as many years, but it’s markedly different to his last.
2015’s Luys i Luso, Hamasyan’s sixth album since 2009, was actually recorded three months after the newly released Atmosphères. It featured Hamasyan’s piano and choral arrangements of Armenian sacred music of the 5th to 20th centuries, and, as with Atmosphères, it drew, in part, on compositions by Armenian composer Komitas Vardapet (1869-1935), whose music was inspired by Armenian folk melodies. But where Luys i Luso was fully arranged, Atmosphères was mostly improvised, and it is very different in conception and execution.
Luys i Luso is an undeniably beautiful album, but where the blend of the Yerevan State Chamber Choir’s stately chants and liturgical song and Hamasyan’s fluent but angular pianism proved rather awkward, the pianist’s accommodation with the established post-jazz trio of Arve Henriksen (trumpet), Eivind Aarset (guitar ) and Jan Bang (live sampling) is much more successful.
The session’s genesis was a performance at Norway’s Punkt Festival, featuring Hamasyan and Bang as a duo. The current quartet then came together at the behest of ECM’s Manfred Eicher, and the album – a double CD – was recorded and mixed in one pass in June 2014. The whole process was wrapped up in just three days, and there is a refreshing but almost spartan asceticism to its sound.
Henriksen is routinely ravishing, as in his soloing on “Tsirani Tsar”, an arrangement of music by Komitas on which Hamasyan also plays with aching sensitivity, and Aarset – conjuror of soundscapes and self-dubbed dream logic – shades them almost subliminally. When Bang makes the odd subtle tweak through real-time sound processing, the prevailing serenity amplifies the fleeting but unsettling temporal glitch.
Such interventions as Bang and Aarset make keep the listener attuned, despite the longueurs induced by a surfeit of lulling ravishment. “Traces II” follows “Tsirani Tsar” (all of the original improvisations are numbered, “Traces” I-IX) with a relatively agitated dynamism – an exception rather than the rule on the first, 50 minute disc.
The individual pieces each have their own focus, with the piano and breath instruments sporadically slipping in and out of shaded textural playing to essay a melodic lead. “Traces V” is yoked to Komitas’ “Garun a” as a ghostly, fourth world mist that never fully burns off the hushed reverie of its interpretation.
Henriksen isn’t credited on a couple of the early numbers, including the introductory “Traces I” and “Traces III”, but the latter is a lovely meld of Chopin étude-esque pianism, planar ambience, and wispy fluting, which is surely Henriksen, approximating the sound of the Armenian duduk.
Of the few edgier moments, “Traces IV”, sequenced near the end of the first CD, serves as a reminder of the quartet’s electro-acoustic palette and its potentially edgy volatility: echoes here of multikulti Codona, and nice, sharp splashes of inside piano.
And the second disc begins with the ten-minute “Traces VII”, one of the album’s longest pieces, and by far its most unsettled and probing improvisation. It begins wired by overt abstract electric guitar sound sourcing, and charged with a similar creative intensity to Henriksen’s Supersilent at their fervid, unguessable best. Then there are further echoes of Codona, and also of Jon Hassell, in Henriksen’s playing over a lyrical upper-register trinkle of pianism. This performance invests the remainder of this shorter (39:26) disc with a charge that carries through to the end, notwithstanding a dip in overt intensity.
“Traces VIII” continues in this less settled vein, but the album’s second ‘set’ also features more of Komitas, with two pieces by the composer, returning us to lyrical reflection on his core melodicism, sequenced together at its heart, and another, “Queler Tsoler”, at its end, segued neatly into after a fragment of late 19th century Spanish composer Isaac Albéniz’s “angel of Girona”.
Along the way there’s some of the quartet’s most translucent playing: a thumb piano intro and superb solo Henriksen on the shimmering, pianistically Satie-like “Traces IX”, and then the final apotheosis of “Traces'” quietude in the almost purely atmospheric “Traces X”.
The second CD is the most concise. It has the broadest dynamic range, and therefore suggests itself as a solid stand-alone release. But the longueurs on the first CD aren’t easy to pin down, and its smoky evanescence is part of the overall package’s profound and affecting appeal.
Tigran Hamasyan piano; Arve Henriksen trumpet; Eivind Aarset guitar; Jan Bang samples, live sampling.
Eivind Aarset – Dream Logic (with Jan Bang).
Sinikka Langeland – The Magical Forest (feat. Arve Henriksen).
The Andy Sheppard Quartet – Surrounded by Sea (feat. Eivind Aarset).
Supersilent – 12.
Buy Atmosphères direct from ECM.