Concert Review: Arto Tunçboyaciyan & Friends Performing “Avantgarde Folk”

Date: October 27, 2013
Venue: Le Poisson Rouge (NY)

Review by Dawoud Kringle

On an early Sunday night, Le Poisson Rouge was packed to the rafters for a performance of Armenian jazz. The show was billed as “Armenian Jazz with Arto & Friends.” The concert was dedicated to Paul Motian, and Armenian American whose musical legacy barely requires an introduction.

Arto & friends is Arto Tunçboyaciyan (percussion, drums, vocals, guitar), Lucy Yeghiazarayan (violin, vocals), Tatev Yeghiazarayan (piano, vocals, percussion), Michael Sarian (trumpet), and Noah Garabedian (bass).

After a brief tuning check, the Yeghiazarayan sisters (Tatev on piano and Lucy on vocals) played a mournful near eastern melody in unison, the major third and minor second creating a sad introspection. Garabedian and Sarian joined them; the bass mirroring the vocals and the trumpet offering a jazzy counterpoint. This ended without taking the song to another stage. They continued with the pianist playing a daf, the vocalist on violin. The song was a dark, sexy run through an eastern backstreet where religious and national contrasts come together in clandestine trysts.

The pianist returned to the piano. The violin sang a wordless poem of longing. The piano trumpet, and bass splashed jazz inspired counterparts and contrasts that brought wonderful color and dimension to the melody.

Until now, Tuncboyaciyan had been absent, but now he came up on drums. The women began a wordless song that vacillated between unison, harmony, and counterpoint. The band eased in like water flowing into a pool. The melody was such that one knew only women should sing it (and not simply because if the register). While it was definitely a jazz song, it was an older European style that was, nonetheless, strangely dispelled by the free drumming. The women employed interesting vocal effects; sometimes mimicking tremolo.

The next song was more animated. An instrumental that teasingly ended as abruptly as it was brief. Somehow it left one unsatisfied and wondering what happened.

They continued with a piece that started with a promise of early Miles Davis, and morphed into a lovely euro-Armenian jazz.

They continued with the women singing another woman’s melody, clapping a rhythm behind it that some in the audience joined in. The band turned this into another brief jazz song.

The drummer follows with a solo that nothing the band did could have prepared the listener for. He used electronic processing and vocal effects to create a Far East influenced collage of exotic textures and invocation of scenarios and other worldly effect. This eventually became a singalong that the audience participated in.

Then he picked up an electric guitar and, still sitting behind the drums, sang a ballad. This was a serious, sad, and clearly Armenian song. It eventually brightened to a major key. The content of the song (and the very lengthy monologue that followed it was clearly something one familiar with the song would identify with.

He abruptly began another drum solo. This one was quite powerful and dynamic. An irresistible rhythm with suggestions of counter rhythms and wonderful embellishments propelled the listener on a much welcome musical trek.

I should point out that he had no kick drum. The bass drum parts were done by hand. This was interesting when he played solo; but when playing with the band, somehow left the low end of the music somewhat uncentered.

Abruptly he began to sing a song that the audience clearly recognized. His voice in this was clear and much more powerful than his previous vocals.

Without stopping, he segued into his next piece. He blew onto a bottle, simultaneously singing and playing a frame drum. The audience delightedly clapped along with what to them was obviously a familiar song.

On the next piece, he picked up his guitar and invited the violinist to join him. She began a bright melody, for which he provided accompaniment. The feel was almost Irish; perhaps owing to the triplets on the guitar. The song was very short.

The rest of the band returned to the stage. Nothing could have prepared the audience for what they played next. The bass, drums, and piano set up a jazz groove, which the trumpeter took the lead on. This song was real American jazz. As the song progressed, a more Armenian mood eased in; but the American jazz (and occasional Latin jazz) vibe was too strong to be overcome. The band played wonderfully on this.

The drummer picked up his guitar again and brought the band back to Armenia. This was a bright and cheerful song with a singalong quality. A simple melody over a 1-4-5 was easy for one and all to join in. It had the effect of a children’s song.

Suddenly it was changed to a minor key that had the feel of an eastern folk song. The band left the stage, and the drummer sang it alone.

And the concert was concluded. There was no encore, despite calls from the audience for “one more”.

The performance was good (despite a few lulls and what were, for my perhaps excessively American ears, incongruous musical offerings.) The bands played marvelously and are all skilled professionals. One of the main things I noticed was that the music and performance contained elements that were best appreciated by those who are familiar with Armenian music and culture. It is clear this was a night for Armenians.