June 25, 2024


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Interview with Armen Donelian: Between academic interest and emotional satisfaction, between the brain and the heart: Videos, new CD cover

Jazz interview with jazz pianist and composer Armen Donelian. An interview by email in writing. 

JazzBluesNews.com: – First, let’s start out with where you grew up, and what got you interested in music.  How exactly did your adventure take off? When did you realize that this was a passion you could make a living out of?

Armen Donelian: – I was born in NYC, grew up in Armonk, NY, started playing and improvising by ear around 6 years of age, started Classical lessons and composing around 8 until 20 years, rock, blues, Jazz, church, vocal accompaniment, musicals, show tunes, guitar, clarinet, drums, saxophone, tuba, singing, all part of the picture by the age of 17. Making a living was not a concern until much later. It was my parents’ support that made possible my Classical lessons. Without their support, I would not have been able to become educated. The debt I owe them is unspeakable. I recognized as a child that I wanted to play music, and I recognized that I wanted to play Jazz music when I was around 12. I did not recognize until much later that I even would be able to make a living. In fact, most of my income has been earned through teaching and investing, not through playing music. It was teaching that gave me the independence and confidence to be able to pursue a career in the arts.

JBN: – How has your sound evolved over time? What have you been doing to find and develop your own sound?

AD: – My Austrian-born Classical piano teacher Michael Pollon at the Westchester Conservatory of Music helped me enormously as a child to develop a clear and expressive sound. He also helped with fingering and technique. He introduced the Classical repertoire and pedagogical methodology to me. Simply put, without him, I would never have been able to develop the courage and the skills to become a true musician. I owe him a great deal. He was a second father to me, for music. Later, Richie Beirach helped me to strengthen and project my sound, both through his teaching and through his example. He taught me a great deal about modern harmony, composition and contemporary improvisation.

JBN: – What routine practices or exercises have you developed to maintain and improve your current musical proficiency, in terms of both rhythm and harmony?

AD: – I have practiced the exercises handed down by my teachers mentioned above, and others, and from these I have developed my own set of exercises that I now use every day to keep my strength, sound, time and touch in good shape. You can read more about them in my book, Whole Notes published by Schott Music. Since that book was published, my exercises have evolved even further.  Now, I have a 30-minute routine in two hands that covers every triad in every key from bottom to top on the piano keyboard. I was inspired by a passage in a Chopin Scherzo, from which I develop this exercise.

JBN: – Have you changed through the years? Any charges or overall evolution? And if so why?

AD: – I think you mean “changes” not “charges”. Of course, the answer is obvious. Everyone changes, everything changes, everyone and everything evolves, nothing stands still. Why? Because change is the nature of the Universe. Look at the weather, looks at the trees, the rivers, the land, and so forth. Look inside at your own human nature and psychology. Are you the same as you were 10 years ago? Of course, there is some element of inborn character that is inherent in every person, and who can say where this comes from? Then, there is inherited genetic information in our chromosomes, there is accumulated conditioning derived from experience, and there are choices we make that steer the direction and depth of change that these forces energize. This is called karma, or the Universal Law of Cause and Effect. Everything follows this law, nothing escapes it. The question is, how do we harness this energy to lead to a desired result? This is the power of choice. Some people call it Destiny, but that to me sounds like it is out of our control. Nonsense. Truly, all humans share about 80% of the same karma. But that other 20% which is individual-specific is where we have freedom, the wiggle-room to be self-expressive and independent of our inherited conditioning.

JBN: – How do you prepare for your recordings and performances to help you maintain both spiritual and musical stamina?

AD: – I meditate and do yoga and walking mostly every day. It is essential to take care of the health of the body which is the vehicle that carries the spirit. It is also imperative to watch what goes on in the mind and think healthy thoughts. Hate, anger, resentment and violence are part of the human experience and they cannot be avoided. But it is essential to acknowledge and release this strong energy and understand what it is trying to express. Ignoring or suppressing thoughts allows them to fester and grow out of control and this squanders internal energy that would be better used in service of artistic creativity. I try to get enough sleep and take breaks in my day. Intensive activities like practice and performance require balance with periods of calm and reflection. Experiencing nature, conversation with friends, family and loved ones, and simply “putting one foot in front of the other” allows the mind to assimilate and organize internal energies without stress or force. This is the basis for stamina, and for beautiful music.

JBN: – What do you love most about your new album 2022: Fresh Start, how it was formed and what you are working on today.

AD: – Fresh Start came out of the pandemic, during which I had many hours of free time in which to practice. However, I simply over-practiced and this caused an injury to a small muscle in my right shoulder resulting in a great deal of pain. I had to stop playing the piano for three months and receive physical therapy in order to allow my shoulder to heal. During this period I also sought counseling to make sense of the frustration and anxiety I felt about this injury, but also about many canceled gigs, the uncertainty of future employment, and many life changes that were occurring including retirement, the loss of loved ones and friends, and so on. What emerged from this process was a new approach to playing the piano, an approach not based entirely on musical content (harmony, melody, etc.) but mostly on sound, musical expression and storytelling. This approach is documented on Fresh Start. Inherent in this approach is a physical aspect of playing the piano that is completely relaxed and attentive to the sensations in my arm muscles, in order to avoid re-injuring my shoulder.

Buy from here – New CD 2023

JBN: – How did you select the musicians who play on the album?

AD: – I’ve known Jay Anderson for about 40 years. We used to play duo gigs in Greenwich Village in the 1980’s. He accomplishments and reputation were always on my radar. We reconnected about 10 years ago in a jam session with a saxophonist named Marc Mommaas, and it reminded me of just how much I liked Jay and his playing. Dennis Mackrel was recommended to me many years ago by the pianist and arranger Jim McNeely who was my teaching colleague at William Paterson University in New Jersey where I taught for 23 years before I retired from my position in 2017. I had the good fortune to meet Dennis about four years ago when he heard me play in a concert. We talked briefly and he offered to play with me at any anytime. Given the high level of musicianship of both Jay and Dennis and the fact that we all live in the same region of upstate New York called the Hudson Valley, I called a session to play with them to see if there was any musical chemistry between us, and there was immediate magic! We did a few small gigs together and the music felt organic. So during my shoulder recovery in the pandemic, I decided to go out on a limb and make a record with them

JBN: – In your opinion, what’s the balance in music between intellect and soul?

AD: – Obviously, it’s the balance between academic interest and emotional satisfaction, between the brain and the heart. Each piece of music will be different in that respect. On the one hand, there are rhythmic and intervallic motives, harmonic subtleties, chromaticism, formal development, instrumentation and other elements of composition and improvisation that comprise the substance of the music. On the other, there are the things I talked about earlier, including sound, expression, storytelling, mood and performance factors that give shape to the projection of the music. All music has both, in greater or lesser degrees depending on the intent and design of the piece. The balance between intellect and soul will determine each piece’s character and its impression upon the listener.

JBN: – There’s a two-way relationship between audience and artist; are you okay with delivering people the emotion they long for?

AD: – The question implies a value judgement between music created to have an emotional effect on people vs. music that is created with other criteria in mind. Truly, an artist cannot forget the audience, but neither can s/he be enslaved by its needs. An artist, first and foremost, must honestly please him/herself. However, an artist with any amount of empathy and feeling will transcend his/her personal needs and try to clearly communicate his/her musical intention to the audience by including its needs in with their own. “Ours” is the artist’s domain and responsibility. There is no separation between “My” and “Yours.” In this way, the artist and the audience both can find satisfaction in the music. The audience gives its attention and openness of mind and heart, and the artist presents his/her artistic vision and personal expression. Both sides bridge the span between the stage and the house. However, it is the artist who holds the reins of power in this relationship and ultimately bears the responsibility for the success or failure of the music to project his/her musical intentions while the audience has a responsibility to listen and absorb the music offered by the artist.

JBN: – Can you share any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions over the years?

AD: – The question is too large to be answered here. I am 71 years old. Of course I can share. Where should I begin?

JBN: – How can we get young people interested in jazz when most of standard tunes are half a century old?

AD: – Plant seeds. Take kids to concerts of live Jazz when they are young. Play Jazz records in the home. Watch Jazz videos together as a family. Educate by giving holiday gifts of Jazz CDs. Talk to school teachers and officials to encourage Jazz programming in the classroom. There are countless ways to cultivate the interest of young people.

JBN: – John Coltrane once said that music was his spirit. How do you perceive the spirit and the meaning of life?

AD: – This is another immense question. I perceive the spirit through the heart and mind. The meaning of life is to free oneself from unconscious conditioning and limitation, to be kind and honest towards oneself and others, and to live in joy and gratitude for one’s blessings.

JBN: – If you could change one single thing in the musical world and that would become reality, what would that be?

AD: – I wouldn’t change anything in the world. The world is as it is. I would only change myself. If I could have had the wisdom of my current age when I was a boy, I would take that.

JBN: – What is the message you choose to bring through your music?

AD: – I hear what I am about to play and ask I myself whether it is an improvement upon silence.

JBN: – Whom do you find yourself listening to these days?

AD: – I rarely listen to music now. I listen to silence. I listen to nature sounds and the sounds of everyday life as music. There is melody, harmony, rhythm and form in everything – all the elements we associate with music are found in nature and on the street. It is honest, it is pure, it is real, there is no commercial agenda or egotism. It is refreshing and renewing, like breathing fresh air and drinking cool water. There is very little music I can bear for any length of time. Perhaps Bach, Debussy, Bill Evans or Sayat-Nova.

JBN: – Let’s take a trip with a time machine: where and why would you really want to go?

AD: – To be in the here and now – in the present moment – is where I aspire to be. Too often I find my mind wandering into the past or the future – in fantasy and delusion. So I make an effort to bring my mind back to the present. Why do I aspire to be in the present moment? Because there is no benefit in self-deceit.

JBN: – At the bottom line, what are your expectations from our interview?

AD: – I have no expectations. Thank you for the opportunity to share my opinions with your readers. – AD

Interview by Simon Sargsyan

Note: You can express your consent and join our association, which will give you the opportunity to perform at our Jazz and Blues festivals in Europe and Boston, naturally receiving an appropriate royalty. We cover all expenses. The objectives of the interview are: How to introduce yourself, your activities, thoughts and intellect, and make new discoveries for our US/EU Jazz & Blues Association, which organizes festivals, concerts and meetings in Boston and various European countries, why not for you too!! You can read more about the association here. https://jazzbluesnews.com/2022/11/19/us-eu-jba/

Armen Donelian, School of Jazz Faculty Member, Selected as Fulbright Specialist for Romania - New School NewsNew School News

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