Many will recognize Armen Chakmakian's keyboard style as a signature of his former group Shadowfax.
But on "Ceremonies," his solo debut, Chakmakian has moved beyond the jazzy and sometimes eerie style of the group to produce the best of many world music styles.
"Gypsy Rain" has the distinctive rhythms and melodies of Armenian music, layered with non-traditional string sounds and driven by Chakmakian's piano. And the plaintive voice of the synthesizers on the title track is hauntingly human.
The artist calls his music New World Jazz, and though it may not be as spontaneous as jazz, the music does draw from many cultures. Hints of Quali melodies and Arabic rhythms appear as do snippets of raga and motifs not unlike the classics of Western music.
Chakmakian's music is supported by beats created on many exotic percussion instruments. In making the music, he rediscovered his ethnic roots and experienced catharsis, which is the point of all ritual and ceremony. Ceremonies is eclectic in the best sense of the word, so everyone should find something to identify with here -- or at least something transporting.
"Rich percussion and unusual instrumentation (duduk, zurna, tres) keep CEREMONIES well away from the New Age cheese barrel; this smooth blend of ethnic sounds and jazz is a fine bit of contemporary world fusion."
-Rhythm Music Magazine
"This is a lovingly crafted album that will appeal to mainstream music fans as well as the adventurous world music listener."
-Stephen Hill - Music from the Hearts of Space
"Armen's use of worldly rhythms and instrumentation combined with gorgeous melodies is absolutely transporting!"
-David Arkenstone - Windham Hill Recording Artist
"For his first solo effort, the former Shadowfax keyboardist assembled some of world music's most brilliant musicians, including Alex de Grassi and Djivan Gasparyan. The result is a perfect mixture of world and jazz..."
"These thoroughly contemporary songs of hope, of love lost and found, of mourning, celebration, and redemption are simply superb... "Ceremonies" is a winner!"
-New Age Retailer - "Fresh Tracks" Steve Ryals
"A dazzling debut from the keyboardist of Shadowfax. You can listen to this outing for hours and it still sounds fresh!"
-PJ Birosik - PJ's Picks (syndicated reviewer)
-NAPRA Review - "What's New In Music"
"With so much pallid 'world music' being released, it's a pleasure to hear substantial work by a real artist."
-Ken Ringlien - KZUM, Lincoln, NE
"... a talent much needed in music today. High energy, adventurous, and not at all like much of the "new age" genre -- no 'listlessness' here. Gets a HIGHLY RECOMMENDED from this reviewer, especially those who yearn for beauty in their musical experience."
-Dick Metcalf - IMPROVIJAZZATION NATION
**MY FAVORITE ARTICLE WRITTEN ABOUT "CEREMONIES" - This writer beautifully articulates where I'm coming from as an artist.
by Srajan Ebaen
Rising from the ashes of the Grammy Award-winning instrumental group Shadowfax, keyboardist Armen Chakmakian's first solo album is a splendid return for this accomplished composer/musician. In Ceremonies, he revisits with us the densely layered, rhythmically complex aural landscapes first explored in the Shadowfax releases Esperanto (1992) and Magic Theater (1994).
The Sufi mystic and poet Jalal'uddin Rumi was fond of reminding followers that his was a caravan of utter ruin and despair. He clearly believed that only a heart purged by ordeal was capable of attaining the sublime goal. Chakmakian travels in a similar caravan. Acknowledging in the liner notes that he emerged from a period of intense personal upheaval, the making of this album was a time of healing and closure, hence titles like "A Time to Heal" and "Echoes of a Prayer." But just as Rumi's statement shouldn't be misconstrued to condemn his Sufi religion as a sour or miserable affair, don't infer either that Chakmakian's music is gloomy, heavy or sad. Quite the contrary! True to its Armenian heritage, Ceremonies draws deeply from the exotic wealth of Middle Eastern instrumentation.
Remember the mysterious music to Martin Scorsese's Last Temptation of Christ? Some of its most haunting moments occurred to the mournful voice of the duduk, a primitive form of ancient Armenian split-reed flute constructed from the apricot tree. The duduk's most celebrated master, Djivan Gasparyan, is featured on Ceremonies along with John Bilezikjian on oud, Alex di Grassi on acoustic and symp guitars, Doug Lunn on electric bass, and a wide assortment of Middle Eastern and African drums -- like djumbek, dhol and djembe -- all played with abandon by five different rhythm wizards. This eclectic voicing, coupled with cosmopolitan and jazz elements, creates a world-music hybrid.
Structurally, the album alternates between intimate trio numbers and large-scale ensemble work, all of which showcase Chakmakian's keyboard skills and trademark circular melodies. "Gypsy Rain" opens with a brilliant solo on tres above tasteful synth washes. Against this, the piano slyly introduces the eventual melody in the odd-metered jurjuna rhythm based on five beats. The effect soon becomes hypnotic, lilting, waltz-like, and is then propelled forward once bass and various hand drums enter.
Space-lovers alert: the appearance of the full ensemble after the intro positively explodes the soundstage. Your room's side walls will dematerialize. Once engulfed by the spiraling jurjuna - flamenco-style hand claps, elegant finger trills on hand percussion, bouncy bass line and all -- piano and oud trade places exploring the melody. The virile, metallic flavor of the Middle Eastern mandolin in heavy attack mode is especially electrifying.
The title track opens with a descending solo on duduk, delivered in all its heartbreaking glory with that unique richness of timbre that is often the hallmark of the most primitive of instruments, such as Carlos Paredes' cracked Portuguese guitar or Gheorghe Zamfir's pan flute. Soon spread-out hand percussion and small cymbals establish a typically Middle Eastern pulse, and piano and oud follow the motif established by Djivan Gasparyan in a long melodic arc that crests in a gorgeous peak of instrumental song before it meanders into thematic progressions between piano and oud.
"In Distant Lands," we encounter a medley of four different Armenian folk melodies seamlessly blended into one, riding once again on a rollicking rhythm carpet of undulating and seductive ripples. The duduk weaves its mournful magic surrounded by very tasteful synth ambiance and bubbling, light-fingered advances of piano.
All this and more make Ceremonies yet another glorious example of the manifold effects of Mankind's first manned space mission. Remember that archetypal outer-space picture of our planet broadcast from the moon by the first astronauts? Our reality, slowly but surely, was transformed into the global village of One World. While politicians, as usual, pursue different agendas, musicians like Armen Chakmakian implement and live the consequences to remind us that we ought to celebrate our unity in diversity.