The first thing that comes to mind when listening to pioneering pianist Armen Donelian‘s new double album Sayat-Nova: Songs Of My Ancestors – due out on April 15 from Sunnyside – is why aren’t these songs world-famous? Thanks to Donelian, someday they might be. With his new arrangements for solo piano and trio with bassist David Clark and drummer George Schuller, Donelian has reinvented over an hour and a a half worth of music by iconic 18th century Armenian composer Sayat-Nova. Celebrated as a national hero and a paradigm-shifting intellect whose plaintive, angst-ridden, often shattering melodies both resemble and predate Chopin by practically a century, Sayat-Nova is also renowned as a lyricist. He was a master of the kamancheh fiddle and the tar lute. His main gig was as a court minstrel for a local tyrant, a relatively cushy job, but one from which he was eventually fired. Within his compositions’ elegant, often enigmatic phrasing, there’s often a seething if restrained anger, and more frequently an absolutely depleted, wounded sensibility. We don’t know why Sayat-Nova got canned, or why he subsequently more or less abandoned music – at least professionally – joined the priesthood and later retired to a monastery. He may have known or figured out too much for his own good – or slept with someone he shouldn’t have.
Donelian’s feeling of kinship with Sayat-Nova is as strong as his passion for Armenian music in general, having played Armenian-influenced jazz for many years with reedman Souren Baronian, drummer Paul Motian and chanteuse Datevik Hovanesian. The operative question, obviously, is how to translate this music – written to incorporate the microtones of the fiddle and voice – for the rigid digits of the piano. Donelian does it chromatically. Yet while improvisation is the key to this whole thing – as it assuredly was when Sayat-Nova himself was playing it – Donelian keeps the main themes true to the originals. His arrangements and melodic variations maintain a similar consistency with the themes’ emotional content: this is a deep album. It’s not at Spotify yet, but watch for it after the release date.
The first of the double-disc set is solo pieces. What’s most stunning is how contemporary this music sounds even though some of it is 250 years old. The bittersweet lullaby Without You, What Will I Do? could pass for a rock ballad from the 70s, as does the gentler but considerably more jaunty I Call Lalanin (ostensibly a coded message to the composer’s secret love). The only concert recording here, Were I Offered Your Weight In Pearls switches up the time signatures as it recalls Dave Brubeck taking a stab at Chopin. The Polish composer is evoked – or, more accurately, prefigured – most vividly in the angst-ridden I’ll Never Know Your True Worth (the famous E Minor Prelude comes to mind).
Donelian brings out a similarly grim bitter edge and sense of longing to the plaintively crescendoing Where Do You Come From, Wandering Nightingale?, and the foresaken stranger’s lament I Have Traveled the Whole World Over. He blends elements of the Middle East and the neoromantic in Surely, You Don’t Say That You Also Cry? and Praised Among All Instruments. a late-career danse macabre that may foreshadow the composer’s downfall. The downright scariest of all the songs here is the Erik Satie-esque With the Nightingale You Also Cry, with its stunned, spaciously pitch-black sense of loss.
As you would expect, the second cd, with its jazz arrangements, is more rhythmically complex and improvisational. King of Cathay grows from a careful stroll with hints of Asian music to dancing variations; Your Headdress Is Silver And Silk builds out of an otherworldly, rapt intro with allusions to ragtime. You Are Golden And Exotic Brocade rises from a stately march to a snazzy, blues-tinged racewalk. The best of the trio pieces is the long, serpentine As Long As I Draw Breath, which foreshadows Satie again, Donelian bookending a long, loungey interlude with a morose waltz. There’s also a ringer here, My Sweet Harp, by a more recent Armenian composer, Khachatur Avetisyan, with a similar blend of creepy, stately and eventually Arabic tonalities. Donelian has stated that this is a lifelong labor of love for him, the high point of an already distinguished and original career and he’s probably right. He plays the album release show on April 4 at 7:30 PM at the Tenri Institute, 43A W 13th St.; $20 standing room tix are available.