Armenian Jazz Is 70 Years Old

Last weekend I saw two performances by a jazz quintet featuring three Americans as well as two Armenian musicians who are now based in the US. But the highlight concert took place at the Opera House on Saturday, June 7. Their visit was sponsored by the US Embassy which was responsible for inviting the musicians under the advice of the drummer who played with them, Karen Kocharian. The band was led by tenor saxophonist and fellow Bostonian Jerry Bergonzi. I first heard him play in a live performance several years ago—it was some time in the ’90s—and I was very impressed by his playing which is a bit influenced by the sound of John Coltrane during his quintessential period of the mid-1960s. Bergonzi performed with Dave Brubeck at the start of his career, which has spanned four decades. He was accompanied by trumpeter Phil Grenadier and bassist Joshua Davis, both of whom I heard on three separate occasions since last Thursday. Both jazzmen play extremely well, especially during tunes where more artistic freedom was encouraged rather than simply improvising around the melody of the tune being played. On Sunday night the same quintet played at the Avant-Garde folk and jazz music club on Pushkin Street near Sakharov Square. The venue was by far the superior forum for these musicians to let the creative energy all out as the audience was more intimate and the vibes were very positive, not to mention the sound system which is fantastic for a club in Yerevan.

The concert was the highlight of the “Armenian Jazz 70” program of events taking place throughout the year. What that milestone means is not necessarily clear as jazz is well over 100 years old with the likes of Scott Joplin first propelling the genre light years forward in contemporary music. Perhaps Joseph Stalin was a secret jazz fan and started letting recordings be smuggled in from the West for soviet-era musicians including those in Armenia to study and play, as jazz was most definitely a spectacular, mind-blowing music form for the time. In any case, the birth of jazz 70 years ago blossomed extraordinarily well judging from the talent I have heard during the last six years of living in Armenia off and on. As one example, take piano player Vahakn Hayrabedyan who in my opinion and I daresay I am not alone in this thought is perhaps the greatest jazz musician performing in Yerevan today. The craftsmanship and vivacity with which he plays his instrument is unrivaled in this country, hands down. He’s played in New York for a considerable amount of time and has also traveled in Europe. Most often he can be heard performing with his trio, or else with his jazz fusion band Katuner (The Cats). He is also a member of Arto Tunçboyaciyan’s Armenian Navy Band. I first heard him play at the renown Poplovok jazz club with a gorgeous woman incidentally named Tamar who was raised in London by my side, now married with children in Vancouver. She even introduced me to Vahakn at that time, her soothing charm he never forsook as I mentioned her name to him last week, his eyes beaming in reply. Others I have come to respect include the legendary drummer Armen “Chico” Tutunjian, tenor saxophonist Arsen Nersesian—who was the leader of his own samba-flavored group Cactus several years ago—and the fantastic vibraphonist Tigran Peshtmaljian, who I recently learned has just returned from Moscow after being there for some time.

These musicians inspired me in no time at all back in 2002 when I didn’t know what to expect from the jazz scene here. And the last three I mentioned I first heard at the now defunct Subway club which was located on Sayat Nova Street near the Deryan Street intersection. At that time, when this blog started out as a newspaper column in the Armenian Weekly, I wrote the following text about my impressions of not only that place but the jazz community in general:

Subway is small but intimate place, located on the ground floor, hence the name. The lighting is dim, and the crowd is always friendly. Usually the club is well packed with customers of all ages. The back room features a billiards table.

Each night a different band is featured at Subway. The musicians that perform at the club are some of the best in Yerevan. Musicians from as far away as New York have played there.

On Sundays, the club features a Brazilian samba band called Cactus, led by tenor saxophonist/pianist/timbale player Arsen Nersesian. The band members are all Armenian, but when you first hear them perform you would think they’re from Rio de Janeiro. When this band performs, there is always at least 10 people dancing on the tiny dance floor, which is formed when moving a few tables to the right and left.

Another regular act at Subway, which usually performs on Tuesday and Friday evenings, is the Tigran Peshtmaljian quartet. Tigran plays the vibraphone, and is an excellent performer.

“The reason why I’m playing this instrument is because of Milt Jackson,” states Tigran, citing the late Milt Jackson of the Modern Jazz Quartet as an influence. “I used to be a drummer, but when I heard Milt Jackson for the first time, I decided to devote myself to the vibraphone. I’ve been playing now for about 12 years.”

The two Armenian guys who played with the Bergonzi Quintet, Karen Kocharian and Vardan Ovsepian, are extremely talented . Karen for one thing is one of the best jazz drummers I have ever heard either live or on record in the 20 years that I have been listening to this music. My words are not meant to be flattering because I know him, the message is very simply the reality. I have not ever come across the command of the drums that he wields, in that same syncopated style of his. There is certainly a strong Tony Williams influence on his playing, and I also hear some Art Blakey once in a while when he slaps the sticks across the outermost part of the drum heads even though he may not be aware of it. Regardless, he is a unique musician and he never ceases to blow me away whenever I hear him perform. Actually the same thing can be said about Vardan. The quintet played one of his compositions actually which he said was inspired when he was leaving Poland by train several years ago. Vardan works as a music teacher in the picturesque Massachusetts town of Newburyport which borders New Hampshire. But I can’t recall anyone playing jazz piano with such grace and subtle nuances as he. Whenever I see him sit in front of the piano he reminds me of a swan, I can’t say why but it’s what I feel, especially when he delicately glides his fingers across the keyboard, and the sound that emanates is always magical. His playing is exceptional and no one else comes to mind whenever I hear him perform; Vardan is Vardan.

Anyway, there are a few reliable places to check out while in Yerevan to regularly listen to jazz. One of them which features jazz nightly for the most part is Poplovok, a lively venue beside a sort of manmade pond that tends to be a tourist trap and a place for those who feel important status wise to be seen. There is also Club 12 located on Abovyan Street near the medical institute which features jazz a few times a week, and the restaurant “Malkhas” on Pushkin Street. But in my opinion the ideal place to hear excellent jazz is at Stop Club on the nights when it is offered. For me at least the dynamic energy at Stop comes closest to that which I always felt at Subway years ago, and the musicians there always seem to feel right at home, with no reservations as to how their music is to be performed for the audience before them whatsoever. Stop Club is located on Moskovyan Street, virtually right next door to the Brussov Institute, and should be a focal place to visit for any meticulous jazz fan.


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