Haunting, Cinematically Sweeping Armenian Sounds from MusAner

by delarue

MusAner’s new cd Once Upon a Time is one of the most picturesque, intensely vivid albums of the year. It gets better as it goes along and ends on a lively note with what may be an escape anthem, Two Way Ticket Across the Black Sea, a jaunty seafaring theme bookended by a dark Balkan dance. The Boston-based group – whose name translates from Armenian as “muses” – take dark, often haunting, centuries-old Armenian melodies and flesh them out into a uniquely cinematic style, equal parts jazz and film music. Their songs always seem to end up in a different place from where they began. The group bill themselves as “folk fusion,” which is actually a misnomer since there’s absolutely nothing fusiony about their sound: the instruments are acoustic, the playing soulful and swinging. The group has a rotating cast, performing as both a lavish ten-piece orchestra as well as a smaller ensemble. Cyprus-born, Beirut-raised pianist Ara Sarkissian brings a tersely moody, meticulous edge to the music, backed by core members Todd Brunel on clarinet, Ken Field on saxes and Artur Yeghiazaryan and Martin Haroutunian on traditional Armenian wind instruments. They’re playing the cd release show at Drom on Oct 26 at 9:20 PM; advance tickets are available for $12. If gorgeously haunting melodies are your thing, this is for you.

The album’s opening track, A Drive Through the Mountains balances warmth and apprehension, a gypsy jazz shuffle given cinematic sweep with rippling neoromantic piano and Haroutunian’s rivetingly shivery microtonal playing on the zouma, a traditional reed instrument that sounds a bit like a cross between a clarinet and an oboe. They follow that with All in a Day, which juxtaposes a silly Alpine-tinged flute tune with a tensely dramatic piano-driven theme. Circle Dance at Midnight takes an edgy Balkan vamp and adds all kinds of cool variations, with echoes of ragtime, dixieland and then that silly Alpine tune when least expected.

The next track is Goodnight Datevik, an elegant piano-and-accordion nocturne; after that, they put a Middle Eastern spin on a bustling, intricately arranged Amina Figarova-style traveler’s tale aptly titled Jetsetter. But as entertaining as all this is, it can’t compare with the next four tracks. The singing quality of Haroutunian’s sometimes mournful, sometimes slithery zouma will give you chills; likewise, Sarkissian’s piano takes on a potently plaintive tone, mingling with the reeds, accordion, bass and drums.

The first of these tracks, Memory Box and then the title cut, make up a diptych of sorts, beginning wistfully but quickly growing darker: it’s clear that not all these memories are pleasant ones. But some are, and that’s how it ends. Likewise, the title track contrasts artfully echoey piano with wounded zouna lines, romps through a funky interlude but ends with with an expansively haunting, elegaic theme. Overnight Train takes a slow one-chord jam and makes a sad Caucasian waltz out of it, while Strewn By the Wind works its way through a long thicket of intertwining reeds into a pensive theme that morphs into a sad waltz and then ends with a poignant piano interlude that wouldn’t be out of place in the Marcel Khalife songbook. In terms of raw, wrenching beauty, this is hard to beat.