By John Fordham
hose who remember Tigran Hamasyan’s bone-shaking, synth-squealing, pop-jazz gigs might have done a double-take as the young Armenian pianist gravely filed on to the Union Chapel’s stage accompanied only by a bowed, hooded, orange-robed choir. Some might wonder whether 2014’s swansong of ECM Records’s globally popular choral/jazz pairing of the Hilliard vocal ensemble with Jan Garbarek had anything to do with the young virtuoso’s arrival on the same label with a solemn programme of medieval and modern Armenian vocal music, embroidered only by his jazz-steeped piano playing. But Hamasyan is devoted to his homeland’s traditions, and this year’s 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman authorities gives this venture a timely poignancy.
He embraced the challenge in this performance with a typical combination of diligent study and brilliant aplomb with eight singers from the Yerevan State Choir.
The single-set gig began with a hymn by 4th-century scholar/composer Mesrop Mashtots, in which a low vocal hum was shaded by briefly flicked treble-note elisions from Hamasyan. A second Mashtots piece brought spooky microtonal vocal drifts punctuated by plucked low-note strings.
The choir began a rhythmic, short-note pulse on the animated Ov Zarmanali, and whispered behind the leader’s now groove-like chord work. Hamasyan’s streaming ingenuity erupted in an outburst of sleek arpeggios and left-hand hooks that brought a roar from the crowd, but the shift never felt like a dislocation as the choir slithered back in around him. Hamasyan jangled a drone-like chord pattern as the lean, vibrato-free voices of his partners punched out exclamatory percussive motifs. A walking bassline underpinned the sound of the male members at their most guttural (while Hamasyan’s improv almost veered into My Favourite Things), and a stamping vocal dance preceded the solemn, carol-like rumination of the encore.