Jazz in Armenia: Two concerts — Two Impressions

Recently I have had a curious and a very illustrative incident. In the shuttle bus two young guys approached me who were attracted by the music that was coming from my earphones. “What are you listening to, dear uncle?”. “Jazz”. ” Is it a saxophone and a contrabass? No, we do not like such an old thing”. The first impulse was a wish to explain to them that jazz could also be different- new, old, traditional, avant-garde, but then I realized that it was useless — if the guys did not understand it, having lived till the age of 17-18, they would hardly understand. So, last week, musicians, our people and visitors clearly demonstrated what kind of jazz was playing today. But these guys, of course, did not attend any of the concerts, which was a pity.

People of Jazz  in Yerevan

A flutist, Valeri Tolstov, is well known in Yerevan. A graduate of Yerevan State Conservatory, he was playing rock and jazz at the beginning of the 2000s and  went to study in Switzerland afterwards. And he  stayed there. There he created his band Authentic Light Orchestra which was supposed  to play ethno-jazz based on Armenian folklore according to his plan. Swiss musicians were part of the ensemble. The soloist was Veronika Stalder  who went to the USA  to learn from Datevik Hovanesian to sing Armenian folk songs in a jazz manner. She did not know Armenian , she was learning Armenian words with a Latin transcription. The ensemble recorded two albums, won Russian World Music Award, gave several concerts in Moscow and was in Yerevan a couple of years ago. And  here is a new meeting with Valera. This time he included the famous Russian LRK Trio in the ensemble as the main group (pianist Evgeny Lebedev, bassist Anton Revnyuk, drummer Ignat Kravtsov), and our musicians were playing with them as invited guests — saxophonist Armen Usnunts, duduk player Emmanuel Hovhannisyan, tar player Miqayel Voskanyan. Plus the string trio from Chamber Orchestra.

Armenian folklore themes and several author compositions sounded again, stylized as folklore. If we try to somehow classify the playing music it will probably be a new age other than ethno-jazz, except for those moments when LRK Trio was playing.. But that was already simply jazz without reference to Armenian music. Real, modern, smart, beautiful, but with no relation to Armenian folklore. These guys are virtuosos, but their involvement in performance of Armenian folk music raised a big question. 

Armen Usnunts,  who is an indisputable authority in our ethno-jazz movement, rescued the situation. Here we need to remember that he is one of the creators of the high-end ensemble “Time Report” which has been  developing  the topic of Armneian folklore in jazz for 20 years. Miqayel Voskanyan was also trying to play something similar to jazz. But he did not impress. The duduk player was very good, but, in fact, he was playing ordinary opuses for this instrument. Above and beyond was the string quartet which was not getting the rhythm (Valera was obliged, now and then, to approach them, conduct, etc.) somehow sounded thin… To be short, it did not fit in the framework. In general, components did not become parts of  one single entity, mosaic did not work, musical picture did not emerge. Musicians were very different in style,  technique, and in energy. 

Nowadays  there are a number of musicians in the world who work on developing folklore. Yet, however strange it sounds, for some reason, the majority of musicians (mainly from  Northern and  Western Europe) are involved in folklore of African, Arabian and Latin-American nations. Taking folk songs and melodies of these countries as a material, they study them  superficially and represent them in  a form they think they should sound. In most cases it turns out kitsch. Something like what two Nadezhdas do — Babkina and Kadysheva. So, I am afraid that  what  the Authentic Light Orchestra  is doing today is very similar to it.  To say the least, it is not  right to play Armenian folklore with Swiss or Russian musicians. And there is no need to do so. But as  the reader understands, it is a personal opinion of the author. 

Classical Jazz Concert:  the Heart’s Cry

The next day the second remarkable concert took place. And it was a feast for soul for classical jazz amateurs. Legendary Jamie Davis, a holder of “chocolate” baritone, was singing to the accompaniment of the State Jazz Orchestra of Armenia and Armen Usnunts. Critics also called him “sugar”, classical and, finally, ideal baritone. Starting his musical career in the church choir  of state Ohio as many singers in those years, Davis then moved to San Francisco which became his home for the next thirty years and where he started cooperating actively with such stars of American scene as Milt Jackson, Eddie Henderson, Dave Liebman, Melba Moore and others. Well, and, finally, the famous performance of Jamie Davis with the orchestra of Count Basie took place in 2000. This wonderful musical union brought  deserved public recognition to Davis. Being a  firm bearer of traditions of such meaningful figures in the jazz world as Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett, Billy Eckstine and others  he performs much all over the world.

The concert in the House of architects, where our State Jazz is based for already a couple of years, , started with a wonderful instrumental play performed by our musicians.A very high level of performance was set from the very beginning. Young musicians, who were singing lead in the play and in the followings-saxophonist David Melkonyan, trumpet player Tigran Harutyunyan, surprised with good sound quality, technique and fantasy. Then  the guest  came to a stage, and pleasant, familiar and favourite melodies to  jazz fans sounded in the hall. As it turned out, Davis was not only an amazing singer, but he  was also a bright showman. He was singing, dancing, playing with an audience, squirming a little and trying to joke. But everything, thank God, was in moderation and did not evoke negative emotions. The orchestra was leading all these jazz standards magnificently. And it is high time to mention  that this time the orchestra replayed the soloist.  Usually, all the attention of listeners is focused on the soloist, moreover, on the visitor star. In this case our orchestra attracted much more attention than  the American guest. Armen Usnunts, an art director and a conductor, managed to create an amazing ensemble of young musicians, set up the necessary mood and make an orchestra of international level from Armenian band. This is despite the fact that the musicians are young, and there is frequent rotation in the band. Evidently, the art director found an approach to his mentees and managed to captivate them with his energy and enthusiasm. Well, here is the last remark. Of course, Jamie Davis is a big artist. But the fact that he was already a “released  edition”,  was also clearly noticed. It was especially noticeable in front of our young energetic orchestra. Anyway, the concert left the most favourable impressions of the play of our orchestra both in generaland in particular.Cool complex arrangements and their amazing performance — that  made the biggest impression. 

Of course, to compare ensembles playing in different styles and in different “weight classes” is not really a grateful case, but one still wants to do that.Comparing, it seems to be  better to do your particular job well than try to experiment for an experiment.

Author: Armen Manukyan ©All rights reserved.

Translator: Sona Melkonyan.