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Grand Ideas, Vol. 2 - Mystic Heights by Armen Donelian

Grand ideas, indeed - this well-paced volume from pianist Armen Donelian, featuring eight of his back-of-the-hand-to-the-forehead, deep-sigh compositions, focuses primarily on one grand idea relevant to the world of music, that of melody. Lyrical flashes and fragile cutbacks ooze from every delicate corner of the disc, masking inherently "jazzy" dynamics (an implied beat and right-handed run-away dominance) behind the feeling of a Chopin etude. Indeed, if it weren’t for the interspersed Art Tatumesque runs and the occasional blue chord, this piece of work would sit somewhere between movie soundtrack music and a classical piano recital. Perhaps it is a refreshing sign that forced musical barriers can be crossed in the modern world with such ease; in any case, it makes for a fairly solid work that makes a case for one of the oldest musical dictums around, preached by everyone from the first New Orleans ensembles to Thelonious Monk to even Albert Ayler: that the most convincing, compelling improvisations start as prolonged, spontaneous melodic embellishments.

Mystic Heights is designed as the second chapter in a trilogy of solo piano albums by the New Jersey-based composer-musician. The first, Wave, sought to highlight his interpretations of other composers’ work, and the third, Full Moon Music (unreleased), is described in the promotional materials as "a suite of free improvisations." Conceptually, then, this volume is intended as an undiluted look into Donelian’s own carefully structured compositions, staying close to their lyric centers, his rhythmic intuition cavorting around them, expanding and contracting them with a finely-honed rubato, and a sense of silence that surprises the listener, just as if walking through a flower-filled meadow, head in the clouds, only to step suddenly over the edge of a cliff. Though the tempo is rarely set above a thoughtful stroll, the melodies themselves provide a considerable amount of variety, whether it’s the sharp left turns of "Amour," the thoughtful reverence of "Ode," or the lively hip-swiveling of "Mexico." Donelian himself explains the structural conceits behind each work in the liner notes, but they are notable primarily for the way in which his readings of them render such devices unremarkable.

Because of the intentionally limited scope of this music - staying resolutely focused on the compositions, structurally and melodically, without fully investigating the implied improvisational next step - it is rather difficult to criticize the work for a lack of diversity. Although much of it reminds one of Keith Jarrett solo recitals, at least speaking in terms of the mood of the pieces, the program is missing one crucial trait the other pianist developed early on: the capacity to push just beyond the limits of what one knows one can do, in the process locating new technique, new ideas, new capacities, in short, spontaneity. This is the missing quality in Donelian’s recital that one doesn’t appreciate the first time through, but the glossy, over-confident contours of which become apparent on subsequent replays.

It is certainly nice to hear these creative melodies lavished with such carefully caressed embellishments; however, one repeatedly wishes that formidable technique and thoughtful pauses would give way occasionally to head-long, furious abandon.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Armen Donelian
  • CD Title: Grand Ideas, Vol. 2 - Mystic Heights
  • Genre: Contemporary Jazz / Modern
  • Year Released: 2002
  • Record Label: Sunnyside
  • Tracks: Ode (Donelian) - 9:17, Devotion (Donelian) - 5:17, Bare Hearts (Donelian) - 6:18, Little Flower (Donelian) - 8:48, Amour (Donelian) - 5:02, Exiled Dreams (Donelian) - 7:20, Mexico (Donelian) - 6:09, Spree (Donelian) - 4:47.
  • Musicians: Armen Donelian (piano)
  • Rating: Three Stars
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