A saxophone spurts a bogglingly asymmetrical, free-falling melody. A nostalgic-sounding Hammond B3 organ churns a sweet, bluesy vamp sound. The drums playfully lock, drive and skirt around the groove. Shades of funk, soul, R&B and gospel are cooked up in a simmering jazz stew.
Welcome to Time, the compelling debut album from temperature-raising Dubai-based group ARS Trio.
The band bring together three of the city’s best jazz musicians, taking their name from their initials: alto saxophonist Artur Grigoryan, drummer Rony Afif and organist Samvel Gasparyan.
Each is a familiar face in his own right – Afif and Gasparyan are members of Abri & Funk Radius, the party-starting outfit best known for their weekly residencies at Jazz@Pizza Express and Blue Bar, while Grigoryan gigs in a piano duo with Gasparyan, among other projects.
Yet ARS stand apart from their other work as a project born of passion, not commerce: the musicians don't regularly play live together as a three-piece and have never performed the music from Time in the UAE. This is something these guys do simply for the love of it.
“I don’t have lots of faith to play this music in Dubai,” says Gasparyan, sadly. “To play jazz is a constant battle – and it’s only getting more challenging.”
The limited appeal, worldwide, of jazz – a primarily instrumental, improvised musical artform, demanding the greatest technical understanding of both musician and listener – is hardly news. But for Gasparyan, jazz embodies a greater sense of opposition – at the time of his birth, the genre was largely “banned” in his home country, Armenia, which was then part of the Soviet Union.
“I discovered jazz in my teenage years, after the collapse [of the Soviet Union],” says the 33-year-old. “I remember I had one Oscar Peterson vinyl that I kept playing again and again to transcribe the solos. It was hard to get – if you had one music book or record, everyone was taking it to make a copy.”
After formally studying classical music, in 2003 the pianist moved to the United States, where he spent nine years working as a musician in Los Angeles and Tennessee, primarily playing country music.
Returning briefly to Armenia, Gasparyan found himself in a Latin band alongside Grigoryan, another conservatoire-trained professional musician who had caught the jazz bug at a very young age after hearing a recording of Dave Brubeck's classic Take Five while a toddler.
“I was a 3, 4 years old,” says Grigoryan, 31. “There was just one jazz tune on this record, but even at that age, I just loved it. I said: ‘When I grow up, I want to play the saxophone.’”
That dream became a reality, but after years of gigging in clubs in Yerevan, the Armenian capital, he was ready for a change.
In 2012, he and Gasparyan moved to the UAE, where they played as a duo at various locations, including the Cigar Bar at Jumeirah Zabeel Saray.
“Artur was kind of bored, he wanted a change – a cruise ship, some way out of the country,” says Gasparyan. “I had the option of Dubai, Shanghai or Singapore – and I chose Dubai.”
It wasn’t long before the pair ran into Afif, a 37-year-old veteran of the UAE jazz scene who fled Lebanon, his homeland, in the midst of the 2006 war. If you have a passing interest in the genre, chances are you’ve seen Afif perform live, either leading his own group alongside his brother and bassist Elie, or at the Dubai Jazz Festival, Abu Dhabi Jazz Festival, Womad Abu Dhabi or du World Music Festival.
Afif's career reached a new peak last year with the release of solo album Zourouf, a stunning set of Arabic-tinged, self-penned instrumentals recorded in New York. It ranks among the UAE's top 20 best-selling albums of the past five years.
“I was planning my album for numerous years – before you do a thing, you can’t imagine it, it’s the end of the world,” says Afif of the new release. “But once you’ve done it, you realise you can do it again.”
Having jammed together in various bands, ARS Trio solidified last summer when they travelled to Armenia for a series of gigs. It was while they were there that Time was recorded, in just three days, live and directly onto analogue reel-to-reel tape at the former Soviet state-owned Melodiya studio.
“Everything was done in two or three takes – but usually we chose the first,” says Gasparyan.
The resulting performances capture the raw spirit of adventure – the joy of the musicians playing off one another – and some splendid solos, but things never stray too far from the finger-clicking soul-jazz idiom.
“It’s experimental, but not that experimental,” says Afif. “We still have our feet on the ground but there’s a lot of space for us to do stuff we don’t usually get to do.”
When, during a similar tour this summer, gigs in neighbouring Georgia were cancelled due to sudden floods, the band returned to the studio and laid down another album’s worth of material in a single day.
Before that sees the light of day, however, the trio want the world to find out about Time, with festival dates in Europe and North America in the works.
Closer to home, the band plan to debut the music from Time regionally at a future edition of For the Love of Jazz, a new monthly jazz night Afif will launch at Dubai's Blue Bar on Saturday, August 29. Alongside, of course, all the other corporate and bar gigs the life of a professional musician demands.
“For me, jazz is a personal thing – you don’t choose the music, it chooses you,” says Afif. “And once that mode of expression is in your hands, you can’t stop. You do all the other stuff to support it.”