“It’s about what you inherit,” declares Ara Sarkissian, the composer and classical pianist behind modern Armenian fusion experiment Musaner. The group has plunged into the caves of tradition to rescue melodies once left for dead and renew them in the airy architecture of the halls of modern jazz.
On Musaner’s sophomore release, Once Upon a Time (release: October, 2012), the polished folk-fusion ensemble plucks stories and spins them into musical gold. From sweeping mountaintop vistas to intimate nights around the fire, Musaner takes the listener on an hour-long journey through the sonic landscape of old Armenia.
Though Musaner’s sophisticated performances reflect the discipline of conservatory-trained jazz artists, Sarkissian’s compositions begin with strands of tradition. Once Upon a Time features the ensemble’s organic intermingling of jazz structure and folk improvisation, but at its heart are the ballads and social music of Armenian folk life. “I think it’s about surface, what’s at the top, brewing,” expounds Sarkissian. “Every phrase there on the surface will help the narrative move along.”
In Musaner’s hands, hazy folk tunes gain a vigorous new life through European-style jazz orchestration. On the title track, Sarkissian’s atmospheric piano draws the listener through a veil of clouds to find, perched atop a mountain crag in the harsh Armenian interior, a bird with a broken wing. Saxophones soar, a duduk (reed pipe) rises, and Musaner battles to give the bird flight.
Musaner is never gimmicky – their music is mercurial and refreshingly exotic, but refined. Though the album will draw in smooth jazz lovers with its lilting and airy instrumental ballads, more frenzied pieces like “Circle Dance at Midnight” will charm fans of Eastern European rhythms. A track like “All in a Day” brings an experimental feeling that may recall a Weimar-era jazz magnificat, but its rhythmically active, melody-driven core will be familiar to world music buffs.
Ensemble founder Sarkissian, of Armenian heritage, was born in Cyprus and grew up in Beirut. In 1989, the young piano prodigy moved to Boston, where he honed his craft at some of the world’s top schools of music. He composed and performed as he studied alternative musical systems, pushing at his own boundaries to try to bring the folk music of his ancestors to a modern stage. Eventually, he realized, “No one really teaches you all of this stuff I was looking for. You have to just have it. I don’t know if I have it, but I’m trying to search for it.” Sarkissian needed the Muses – in Armenian, the musaner.
Sarkissian searched for musaner, and what he found was a group of jazz musicians who wanted to engage in a fusion experiment.
Today, Musaner usually appears as a ten-person ensemble, but it is an organic community of artists, so numbers vary. Near the core is clarinetist and Sarkissian’s frequent collaborator Todd Brunel: “Todd has a very lyrical, descriptive way of playing,” Sarkissian comments. “He really makes a narrative out of it.” Jazz saxophone alchemist Ken Field transforms melodic lines into flirtatious, singing hints. Artur Yeghiazaryan and Martin Haroutunian change the whole landscape with the unique textures of traditional Armenian instruments, with the buzz and resonance that contributes additional depth to the arrangements.
Every member of the ensemble comes to Armenian folk-jazz fusion from somewhere else, and their collaboration has produced a style that engages diverse genres while respecting the music’s folk roots. “The old Armenian songs are all gone, lost in a sense,” Sarkissian reflects, nostalgic but optimistic. This experiment, he hopes, will reinvigorate the tradition by making it both interesting and relatable. “So, I’m reaching back as far as I can.”