Since almost nobody but the disgraced Cultural Elite know who Jarrett is, despite his nearly mythic status among jazzheads, being the next him isn’t going to earn anyone the money and fame that attends big names in pop and country music. But still. In the increasingly tiny world of improvised music, being anointed as a great one, if not The Greatest, is a ticket to immortality, an assurance that your life’s work will be heard, respected, and admired by a fervently enthusiastic minority of thoughtful listeners.
One of the ways to get noticed in the jazz world is to win competitions. The most prestigious one is the annual Thelonius Monk Competition, named for the iconoclastic pianist and composer who, we can say with certainty, would never have won the Monk Competition, let alone any other popularity contest. A man who asserted, “there ain’t any wrong notes on a piano,” Mr. Monk believed that there isn’t any competition in art. Nonetheless, his heirs have recognized that art can’t exist independently outside of commerce, and their worldwide search for the finest players is the jazz industry’s most effective marketing tool.
Each year the Competition focuses on a different instrument. Two years ago, it was piano. The cat who won, beating out, among others, the celebrated Gerald Clayton, son of John, and already legendary among Los Angeles aficionados, was the same freaky genius all my musician friends had been gushing about: Tigran Hamasyan.
For the past two weeks, I’ve listened to Tigran play with a trio at a tiny lounge in the front of a restaurant on Melrose Avenue. Allow me to add my voice to the chorus of hype: If he stays around long enough and is willing to accept the indignity of being ignored by those whose taste runs toward Bruce Springsteen or Kanye West, Tigran Hamasyan is going to leave his mark on music history.
The man is a giant.
If you’ve ever seen him in person (or on YouTube videos), you know how strange the previous sentence is. Yes, he’s a grown man in his 20s, and, yes, he’s a musical goliath. But he also looks like a boy, an elfin genius in the body of a 14-year-old, skinny as a string bean and narrow as Clarence Thomas’s view of equal rights. He has recently grown a great mop of black curls. When he plays, he recalls Animal, from the Muppets — and not just because of his hair. The guy rocks. His entire body absorbs and projects the rhythm, and he sometimes rises from the bench, jumping with the quarter notes. Tigran is possessed, by music.
Sonically, he suggests to me what might happen if you merged Art Tatum with Thelonius Monk. Classically trained, Tigran’s playing is technically stunning, as though he were channeling Vladimir Horowitz. Great cascades of arpeggios flow out of him with breathtaking velocity. But his playing isn’t mere pyrotechnic blazing. He’s harmonically dense, adventurous, profound. There are so many musical ideas rushing out of him that his fingers barely keep up; yet, they do, and you can only marvel at what seems like magic, or some computer-generated trick. He makes the impossible sound possible.
Tigran tends to play things in odd meters, like 5/4. But his facility is such that you sometimes donÆt realize that the tune is gliding along in something other than 4/4 until the drummer or bass player does something to remind you. There’s a naturalness, and inevitability to his playing, as though the mind-boggling inventions pouring out of him were somehow pre-ordained, meticulously rehearsed.
He likes tunes by Charlie Parker, Monk, Herbie Hancock, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter. But he also plays originals and several songs by Radiohead. He told me last week that his musical goal is to move to New York and create a rock band that plays improvised music in odd meters.
Will there be an audience for such inventions? A record-buying public? Probably not a large one. But the tastes of the many canÆt dictate the artistry of the few. I — and a bunch of other people I know — will be listening carefully to whatever Tigran creates. Because after hearing him in person a few times, I realize he’s not “the next” anything.
He’s the first him.