Finally available in the United States, Tigran Hamasyan’s new record Shadow Theater is too much. And I mean that in the very best way. It is by turns melodic, lush, proggy, overwhelmingly complex, meditative, lamentful, disorienting, very old, very new, nod-your-head-so-hard-it’s-gonna-come-off rocking, and metal. What sorcery is this? What genre is this? It’s like Keith Jarrett, Sigur Rós, and Megadeth had a love child. In what world is this music possible?
One might ask: "So, how is this jazz?" Admittedly it’s problematic to categorize Shadow Theater as such, but useful still. Jazz outgrew the bounds of its earliest manifestations long ago. Not confined to swing rhythm or canonical instrumentation, jazz musicians have big ears and have been incorporating the world’s sounds into their compositions and improvisations as far back as can be memory can reach. If modern jazz began with bebop, we can point even to Dizzy Gillespie bringing in Latin rhythms and harmonies, and Charlie "Bird" Parker quoting Stravinsky in his improvisations. “Jazz” is more than an authorized history and a canonized collection of recordings. It is an attitude of approaching music-making that borrows judiciously from everything, moves within the bounds of its common compositional structures as long as is productive, values adventure, exploration, and the valorization of personal agency. Jazz as creative improvised music embraces the world of sound, all types of experimentation and risk-taking, borrows from all idioms, and above all else, has a very long memory. No other musical idiom serves as a bastion for human musics and the human spirits of incorporation and play as does the polysemous term “jazz”. This having been said, Shadow Theater is undoubtedly a manifestation of that attitude and practice.
As there’s so much packed into this record, rather than attempt to take it all apart I will restrict my commentary to just two tracks.
About fourteen minutes into the record we arrive at Drip. By this point we've already been through so much in the first few tracks that the respite of Lament (which immediately precedes Drip) was almost necessary as a rest before moving on. If the listener hadn’t already understood it by the time Drip begins, it should be obvious that Tigran’s influences cast a wide net. Beginning with chunky piano which sets up a dubstep wobble, a groove unfolds incorporating an old-world melody in the vocals (and samples?) and Ben Wendel’s Warne Marsh-informed tenor. There are so many layers here: traditional eastern European plus modern jazz piano plus clubby wub wub. Nate Wood (drums) and Chris Tordini (bass) somehow keep a huge groove on the big cycle of 4/4 happening in spite of the melody’s rhythmic deviations. Drip is so much fun. Tigran’s obviously been listening not only to the jazz canon and Armenian music, he’s well acquainted with dubstep, EDM, and chopped and screwed. Perhaps most important for this track (and the whole record, for that matter) is the large presence of vocals. Areni Agbabyan's incandescent vocal contributions embody a sinuous, powerful frailty that pairs extremely well with Tigran's. The huge presence of singing in Shadow Theater serves to humanize otherwise forbiddingly complex musical structures. These aren't just tunes or compositions. They're songs.
Showcasing Tigran’s more traditionally-oriented jazz piano chops is track ten, Pt. 2. Alternate Universe. Coming out of the dramatic urgency of Pt. 1. Collapse, the sonic space spreads out into a pulsing groove reminiscent of Hancock or Jarrett but uniquely Tigran in its melodicism and percussivity. Nate Wood’s ability to animate the vamp of the first few moments of the tune, imply mixed meters, and play free within complex structure before stopping on a dime for a through-composed section at 2:39 is impressive. Extremely impressive. This track exhibits Tigran’s compositional style which commonly chops up big grooves into re-arranged quanta that seem both familiar and alien at the same time. You’ll be nodding your head with the “big” beat while the floor drops out on your familiar rhythmic subdivisions. The effect is one of disorientation, but not of being lost. The driving melodies in Alternate Universe, like in all of Shadow Theater, offer a golden thread through the shifting sonic landscape. This music is big. It’s cinematic. It’s old, new, challenging, and wonderfully human. As Stravinsky challenged the world with the (then) shocking violence of Le sacre du printemps, the violent rhythmic bashing that closes Alternate Universe gives voice to elements of human experience which can be hard to listen to but bear representation. It’s so metal.
Tigran has created music that defies category but, for lack of better alternative, can effectively be categorized as "jazz". This is contemporary music which speaks from a place of multiplicity, which pushes at the borders of stylistic bounds, and as such, challenges listeners to recognize their own complex humanity. Do we not, each of us (as Whitman might suggest), contain multitudes? Are we not each of us wildly complex and, in our humanity, boundless? This music is ecstatic. It manifests a seemingly impossible transcendence within immanence and bears many, many repeated listenings. Bravo, Tigran, et al. Bravo.
There will be more to this review at Ethnomusicology Review’s Space is the Place subsection of Sounding Board (which I curate). I’ll be adding a review of his upcoming performance at the Alex Theater in Los Angeles. Stay tuned!
In the mean time check out this wonderful live performance of Drip.