With a subdued mystery, an air of melancholy and a spacious beauty, this is a unique mix of improvised piano and choir. 

Label: ECM
Time: 14 tracks /76 mins.

Although Hamasyan grew up listening to his father’s collection of Queen and Deep Purple, he is known worldwide as a jazz pianist – but one who refuses to be put in a musical box.

On Luys i Luso (Light from Light) he has taken hymns and chants from his Armenian homeland, spanning the 5th to 20th centuries, and adapted them for his improvised piano over the vocals of the Yerevan State Chamber Choir.

With the disc set in the left inside cover and a 36-page booklet fixed to the right side, and featuring notes, lyrics, translations and monochrome images, including of a centuries-old manuscript, this disc is beautifully packaged.  Pictures of a fog-shrouded church, surrounded by snow, give a fine indication of the sounds inside.

There is a subdued mystery to the work, an air of sorrow – perhaps appropriate in the centenary year of the Armenian genocide – and a spacious beauty, broken only occasionally by brief, intense choral sections.

At times, sensitive arrangements for the chamber choir offer a quiet background hum between the clean voices of the sopranos and the occasional grittier basses. At one point, the voices keenly resemble a wind blowing around buildings.

The collection works well, particularly because several pieces are given two or three distinct treatments and the returning melodies bring the music together.  

“Ov Zarmandali,” for example, (a twelfth century canto about the wonder of God coming to Israel and being baptised in the water that he created) both opens the album quietly for 86 seconds of piano, and is then developed two tracks later into a thirteen-minute composition that Hamasyan describes as, “almost like a concerto for piano and voices.”

This unique combination of inventively arranged historic Armenian choral work and improvised piano might suggest comparisons with saxophonist Jan Garbarek’s hugely successful Officium collaboration with the Hilliard Ensemble, but it is a different animal. This one is a more natural blend of sounds, if more muted and melancholy in its tone.

Derek Walker