Improvising at my first Tigran Hamasyan concert experience

About a month ago, there was a notice in Chicago Armenians on Facebook that Tigran Hamasyan would perform in Chicago on March 17. We did not recognize the name, but for our group that did not matter. It was enough for us that he is Armenian. We decided to buy tickets and make an evening of it.

After buying the tickets, it occurred to us that, as we had not heard of Hamasyan, we did not know his musical genre. We assumed, since he was billed as a pianist, that he was a classical musician, and we would sit in a nice auditorium listening to Khachaturian, Babajanian, et al. Just to be sure, I did a quick YouTube check and learned that Hamasyan is a jazz pianist of some renown. We recalibrated our expectations but not our enthusiasm.

We arrived at the Lincoln Hall in the Lincoln Park neighborhood of Chicago. We had to show ID and go through a security check to enter. That seemed quite odd. We could not recall having to do that at any other concert. We were surprised upon entering that the venue was smaller than we expected. The main floor was flat with no seating. People were gathered in front of the stage…standing. It had the look and feel of a mosh pit, which heretofore we had only seen in movies and TV shows.

We saw that there was a balcony with chairs. We decided to sit up there, as moshing didn’t fit our style. Just before the stairs, I saw a sign that stated, “We have fentanyl test strips available.” I heard Judy Garland’s voice as Dorothy Gale saying, “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” We grabbed a few chairs on the balcony, watched the mosh pit fill up and waited for the concert to start. I was not sure what to expect.

We talked with the person sitting next to us. He was a fan of Hamasyan and went to his previous concert in Chicago a few years ago. He is an aficionado of this style of alternative, progressive jazz-rock fusion and attends concerts regularly. He added that most of the crowd was made up of fans of Hamasyan; the rest were Armenian, and “you could tell who they were, because they were wearing church clothes.” We were most definitely in our “church clothes.” I might have worn a hoodie and jeans to fit in better. I do believe that if I was not the oldest person there, I was in the top five.

Tigran Hamasyan (Photo courtesy of the artist)

When the concert started, we were blown away by Hamasyan’s talent. His first few pieces had a driving, rhythmic, powerful, short melodic line, repeated with slight variations. The folks in the mosh pit were headbanging – well, really it was just bobbing their heads to the repeating riff. When the groove was well set, Hamasyan improvised…really well. His phrasing, progressions and intricacies were amazing, with noticeable and appreciated swings into Armenian folk, classical phrasings and melodies. After this segment of the concert, Hamasyan offered a selection of more pure jazz pieces. To me, these were even more incredible, and the Armenian parts were more pronounced. The audience was mesmerized the whole time.

Hamasyan was joined on stage by two other amazing musicians: Matt Brewer on bass and Justin Brown on drums. Their note-for-note intricate passages and syncopations were as good as you would find in any jazz trio.  

Hamasyan was born in 1987 in Gyumri.  He is a magnificent talent with incredible musical skills honed at Tchaikovsky School of Music in Yerevan, Armenia, where he received formal training in classical piano and music theory. After completing his studies in Armenia, Hamasyan furthered his education at the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts, where he pursued a degree in jazz piano performance. Berklee’s diverse and innovative musical environment provided him with opportunities to collaborate with musicians from various backgrounds and genres, shaping his approach to music composition and improvisation.

He gained international recognition after winning the prestigious Thelonious Monk Jazz Piano Competition in 2006 at the age of 19, marking the beginning of a successful career as a solo artist and collaborator with renowned musicians from around the world.

Throughout his career, Hamasyan has released numerous critically acclaimed albums, including A Fable (2011), Mockroot (2015), An Ancient Observer (2017) and The Call Within (2020). His music has been praised for its adventurous spirit, technical mastery and deep emotional resonance.

In addition to his solo work, Hamasyan has collaborated with a diverse range of artists across various genres, further expanding his musical horizons. He continues to push boundaries and explore new musical territories, solidifying his reputation as one of the most innovative and influential pianists of his generation.

It was a great concert, and we felt very ‘with it’ to have experienced it. We are now officially Tigran Hamasyan fans. The next time we go to a concert I will sport a hoodie and jeans, but we will probably still avoid the mosh pit.

Mark Gavoor
Mark Gavoor is Associate Professor of Operations Management in the School of Business and Nonprofit Management at North Park University in Chicago. He is an avid blogger and oud player.

1 Comment

  1. Mark,

    Derenig & I saw him with friends when they were in DC the night before and we too were blown away. What a talent. Watch for his name as he is going laces :)

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