Samvel Gasparyan: representing Armenian jazz from the UAE
The Armenian musician tell us why choosing to move to the UAE seven years ago was the first step towards the release of his debut solo EP
After listening to Samvel Gasparyan tell the story of his life, it’s hard to believe his answer to my final question: he is only 36 years old. Not that he looks much older than that – albeit the doubtless touched-up press shots still reveal a few creased lines, a certain weathered weariness that is the hallmark of a life lived on the road. It’s simply that there was so much to get through when it comes to his personal history.
After chatting for more than an hour, I still feel we’ve barely scraped the surface of this Armenian musician’s adventures: from late-night Manhattan jam sessions to recording with the State Jazz Orchestra of Armenia and joining hillbilly Nashville rodeos; from gigging in 40 countries to playing cruise ship residences and performing at the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival. And finally, his move to the UAE seven years ago, where in February he released his first solo record, Morning in Yerevan – an almost-album-length EP that goes some small way towards reconciling all of Gasparyan’s divergent experiences in sound.
'With a label, there’s a certain prestige'
It is a little ironic because the UAE is hardly a haven for jazz, and perhaps only a handful of records have been recorded in the country – and even the best of these are often self-released affairs. Morning in Yerevan came out on Universal Music Mena, one of the “Big Three” record labels in the region.
The irony is cruelly multiplied when Gasparyan reveals that it’s the success of his new release – and the clout that comes from having the backing of a major label – which is helping him move on, with the musician now dividing his time equally between the UAE and Europe. That includes a planned album launch tour, which, after kicking off in Dubai in late April, will include a string of dates in Armenia, Georgia and Russia.
“When you get signed, you really feel the influence in other places,” says Gasparyan. “With a label, there’s a certain prestige. Now I’ve made an album it’s changed my trajectory – I want to take my music to Europe.”
A chance encounter
But the album owes more than lip service to the Emirates. A tightly arranged quartet date in the “modern jazz” mould, the four primary voices of piano, horn, bass and drums all form a delicate equilibrium of the sonic whole. But if there is a stand-out star, it’s Korey Riker, an established reeds player who has toured the world alongside pop stars such as Seal, Freddie Jackson and Melody Gardot, and has recorded tracks with legendary urban artists The Roots, Queen Latifah and Erykah Badu.
In early 2015 Riker was passing through the UAE as a featured soloist in John Legend’s band, and after playing a knockout gig to 15,000 people at Dubai Jazz Festival, Riker was eager to keep the night alive. The American saxophonist found his way to nearby JLT’s Jazz@Pizza Express, where Gasparyan was sitting behind the keys as part of the house band. “We just clicked, and then, crucially, we stayed in touch,” says the pianist.
At the time, Gasparyan supplemented these commercial club gigs with the artistic outlet of ARS Trio, an uncompromising originals outfit that paired the pianist with sax-playing compatriot Artur Grigoryan, and Rony Afif, a well-known Lebanese drummer and Gasparyan’s bandmate in evergreen covers’ troupe Abri & Funk Radius.
ARS Trio was conceived as the musicians’ part-time ticket away from main stages and commercial engagements – a retro-flavoured but forward-thinking organ trio, spinning smart, knotty self-penned vignettes. But the pressures of playing such material commercially mounted, and after releasing the excellent debut album Time in the summer of 2015, the band went their separate ways.
“It fell apart, but we’re still good friends,” Gasparyan says. He continued to write original music, but the musician wasn’t all that sure what to do with it. That changed early last year when he heard John Legend was booked to perform at that year’s Dubai Jazz Festival. Knowing Riker would be accompanying him, Gasparyan reached out. “I always wanted to push my own project, and this seemed a good time to put it together,” he says.
'Morning in Yerevan'
Riker extended his stay in the UAE for a week to collaborate with Gasparyan and they recorded the six tracks that became Morning in Yerevan. The band was also fleshed out by Sri Lanka-born, Bahrain-raised electric bassist Anthony Muthurajah and Irish drummer Satya Darcy. After only two days holed up in Dubai’s SoundStruck Studios, this quartet laid down 28 minutes of music for Gasparyan’s debut solo release.
It’s an impressive achievement, with a fluid groove and intuitive interplay beneath these tight arrangements. What’s noticeable is the absence of the long solos that characterise jazz both old and new – there’s no question these six tracks could easily have been extended to create an album of material.
Gasparyan’s restraint represented a deliberate effort to make the compositions shine. “My approach to making music has always been that you have to tell a story,” he says. “It has to say something. It’s not enough to be a great player; it has to be part of an overall package that anyone can understand.
“I always think about the average customer, what they can understand. The purpose is not to show virtuosity and skills, but to have a message.”
'It’s hard to stay in one genre'
It’s a refreshing personal perspective from a jazz composer – a strand of musicians who stereotypically struggle to even name their instrumental works. Instead, Gasparyan talks about each piece with a seriousness that borders on the literary. Named after the legendary flamenco guitarist, the fusion-flavoured opening track Paco De Lucia is a tribute to Gasparyan’s love of Spanish culture, and is flecked with Andalusian flourishes that reveal the influence of American jazz musician Chick Corea.
The bucolic closer On the Way to Sevan invokes Gasparyan’s childhood reverie of visiting the famous titular Armenian lake. Introduced by delicately rolling piano, the title track draws on Armenian folk traditions to conjure the musician’s image of the “hustle, bustle, past, present and future” of his home town and Armenia’s capital, on the 2,800th anniversary of Yerevan’s founding. “It’s hard to stay in one genre,” says Gasparyan. “Musicians are always the total of all the different elements, and you just put that all together and see what happens.”
Musicians are always the total of all the different elements, and you just put that all together and see what happens.
The most beguiling music on the EP is the two-part epic Forgotten Dream / Changing Universe, overdubbed with gnarly electric guitar, which serves as Gasparyan’s instrumental verdict on life in the internet age.
“It’s about today’s world, how we’re becoming less human,” he says. “We have more and more technology, but we’re more disconnected from each other.
We still have wars and famine and starving babies, there’s still trash – we’re still throwing pizza boxes from the balcony. In the past 100 years we’ve had two world wars, and we didn’t learn anything.
“The world is getting more dangerous – I don’t even want to imagine what the world could be like 50 years from now. Next we’ll have to compete with robots and computers – you don’t even have to compete with humans any more. This ‘changing universe’ is going to get even crazier.”
Morning in Yerevan is out now on all major streaming services. For more information, visit
Great albums by UAE jazz artists
‘Peninsular’ by Tarek Yamani (2017)
Commissioned by the Abu Dhabi Festival and launched at the event in 2017, Peninsular continued the trailblazing Lebanese pianist’s exploration of jazz with Arabic forms, pairing an acoustic trio with an Emirati percussion troupe to fascinating effect. Yamani now lives in New York.
‘Zorouf’ by Rony Afif (2014)
The Lebanese drummer’s debut solo album, which also features Yamani, represents a small group, modern jazz masterclass, and includes fluid acoustic quartet explorations of Afif’s dreamy, angular, often Middle Eastern-tinged themes.
‘Homemade in Rome’ by Kamal Musallam (2013)
A UAE scene survivor known for daring fusions of rock and jazz with Arabic scales, the Jordanian guitarist and oud player’s jazziest, most organic record added flamenco percussion to the mix. A sequel is planned for later this year.
Updated: April 4, 2019 09:00 AM