Michael Sarian Presents ‘New Aurora’

Trumpeter/composer Michael Sarian is an artist who paints images of humanity through sound. On his fourth album New Aurora, we find him on trumpet and flugelhorn as the sole melodic voice in this acoustic quartet, a clear departure from his previous releases which featured extensive four-horn arrangements, electronics and hard-hitting grooves (Sarian has released three albums as a bandleader with his septet, Michael Sarian & The Chabones, and also leads Michael Sarian & The Big Chabones, a 16-piece big band). Listening closely through flesh, metal, breath and spit, we can hear his family’s heritage, his musical heroes and his declaration as a jazz artist who has something compelling and beautiful to add to the conversation.

Born in Toronto and raised in Buenos Aires from the age of one, Sarian has been calling New York City home for the past eight years. New Aurora has been in gestation since Sarian’s first release in 2014. The album comes to us as a result of engineer/producer Luis Bacque’s downright insistence that the trumpeter venture into a freer, more acoustic setting that would feature his own playing, particularly on the flugelhorn, at the forefront of the ensemble’s sound (Sarian plays flugelhorn on all tracks save the first).
Inspired by the music of trumpet greats Kenny Wheeler, Tomasz Stańko, Enrico Rava and legendary Armenian/American drummer Paul Motian, Sarian ventured into Bacque’s studio to test the waters of this new musical direction. After an afternoon spent at the New Jersey recording studio with Santiago Leibson (piano), Matt Pavolka (bass) and Dayeon Seok (drums), the session yielded the first two tracks of what would become Sarian’s New Aurora. Sarian began writing the first of the compositions, This Is Only The Beginning, in a hotel room in Florida in early 2019, while reading Japanese writer Haruki Murakami’s “Killing Commendatore.” The novel tells the story of a 30-something artist facing an early onset mid-life crisis, who, after a devastating separation, decides to quit his lucrative career as a portrait painter, retreat into the mountains and pursue a more fulfilling path of abstract self-expression, proclaiming ‘this is only the beginning.’ “Scottie (33),” in honor of the great 1990s Chicago Bulls player Scottie Pippen, followed soon after. The opening theme is in 9 (the result of multiplying both 3s of his jersey number) and presents a subdued atmosphere. Originally meant to be a more up-beat composition, Sarian discovered that the only nickname Pippen had during his playing days was ‘No tippin’ Pippen,’ because he was a notoriously poor tipper, probably as a result of the terrible contracts he had with the Bulls organization while having to support his family, so Sarian decided to convey that sense of sorrow and disappointment in the music. The choppy, hip-hop groove in 7, then 15, gives the track a big finish because, after all, Scottie did win six championships.The album derives its name from the track “Aurora,” which Sarian began writing on February 15, 2019. Although the word literally means “dawn,” which is the meaning Sarian hopes to convey behind the project, the composition came after hearing of a mass shooting in Aurora, Illinois. The composition bears a somber mood, a hopelessness which Sarian felt assuming #Aurora was trending because of the 2012 mass shooting there, only to find out that yet another senseless act of violence had taken place.

Dedicated to his cousin Nick, “Primo” (“cousin” in Spanish), is arguably the most ‘straight-ahead’ track of the album. The idea for the composition came after getting a copy of Nicolas Slonimsky’s book Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns. Sarian based the composition on a scale found on the second page. The marking at the top of the chart is “fast + gritty swing” with no chords to be found, just the scale the tune is based on.

Michael Sarian

Paying homage to his Armenian heritage, Sarian arranged two pieces by Komitas, the celebrated Armenian monk, composer, musicologist, and founder of the Armenian national school of music (who last year celebrated his 150th birthday). Originally a love song, “Dle Yaman” became a song of loss and longing after the Armenian Genocide and is considered to be one of the folk songs that best represents the soul of Armenia. The theme is first presented on its own by Sarian’s trumpet and then restated with the rhythm section playing roots and fifths. The piece is used as an introduction for Sarian’s original piece Portrait of a Postman, inspired by the music of the Paul Motian Trio and named after the Vincent van Gogh painting.

The second piece by Komitas on the album, “Chinar Es,” translates quite literally to “You are a tree.” “The title refers to the poplar tree, and back in the day this was apparently something men told women when trying to flirt, as in ‘You’re as tall and slender as a tree,’” said Sarian. He says that much to his dismay, this pick-up line does not hold water any longer in Yerevan. Sarian arranged this piece using the traditional Armenian rhythm curcuna in 10/8, with the melody played loosely over pedal tones.

Drawing on his own family’s heritage in Armenia and Eastern Europe, “Mountains” deals with the landscapes his ancestors had to navigate, from historical Armenia in Eastern Turkey, to Istanbul, to Romania during and after the Genocide, all the way to Argentina, Canada and back to Argentina, for him to finally find his current home in New York City. A nod to his family name (“sar” means “mountain” in Armenian, and “sarian” translates to “son of the mountain”), the track has three layers working together: a drum groove in 5 based loosely on Armenian rhythms, the bass and piano playing a static two beat back and forth, and a floating melody on the flugelhorn.

Sarian introduced a new piece the evening before the first December session, titled “The Morning After.” It starts out with a Beatles-esque piano motif and conveys the frantic despair one might have after a big night out, which as fun as it might be, many times comes with self-doubt the next morning, giving in to a brief existential crisis. The shortest track in the album, the tune breaks down into a completely free improvisation among the four musicians, only to be brought back into the melody before an abrupt finish.

“Colorado Yeta” is the only ‘recycled’ tune of the album, which Sarian recorded with his septet and released on his previous recording. Literally translated into Spanish (or Argentine slang), it means ‘Bad Luck Ginger’ and expresses the sorrows of growing up as a redhead in Argentina.

The last track on the album is “Monk’s Ask Me Now” presented as a lovely duet with Sarian and pianist Leibson, serving as a sort of palate cleanser after almost an hour of original compositions and arrangements.

To purchase New Aurora and learn more about Sarian, please visit his website.

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Guest contributions to the Armenian Weekly are informative articles or press releases written and submitted by members of the community.
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