Old Stories, New Retellings: Ara Sarkissian and Musaner’s Jazz Muses Inspire a Twist on Armenian Folk Music
“It’s about what you inherit,” declares Ara Sarkissian, the composer and classical pianist behind modern
Armenian fusion experiment Musaner. The group has plunged into the caves of tradition to rescue melodies once
left for dead and renew them in the airy architecture of the halls of modern jazz.
On Musaner’s sophomore release, Once Upon a Time (release: October 26, 2012), the polished folk-fusion
ensemble plucks stories and spins them into musical gold. From sweeping mountaintop vistas to intimate nights
around the fire, Musaner takes the listener on an hour-long journey through the sonic landscape of old Armenia.
Though Musaner’s sophisticated performances reflect the discipline of conservatory-trained jazz artists
, Sarkissian’s compositions begin with strands of tradition. Once Upon a Time features the ensemble’s organic
intermingling of jazz structure and folk improvisation, but at its heart are the ballads and social music of
Armenian folk life. “I think it’s about surface, what’s at the top, brewing,” expounds Sarkissian. “Every phrase
there on the surface will help the narrative move along.”
In Musaner’s hands, hazy folk tunes gain a vigorous new life through modern jazz orchestration.
On the title track, Sarkissian’s atmospheric piano draws the listener through a veil of clouds to find, perched
atop a mountain crag in the harsh Armenian interior, a bird with a broken wing. Saxophones soar, a duduk
rises, and Musaner battles to give the bird flight.
Ensemble founder Sarkissian, of Armenian heritage, was born in Cyprus and grew up in Beirut. In 1989, the young
piano prodigy moved to Boston, where he honed his craft at some of the world’s top schools of music. He
composed and performed, pushing at his own boundaries to try to
bring the folk music of his ancestors to a modern stage. Eventually, he realized, “No one really teaches you all of
this stuff I was looking for. You have to just have it. I don’t know if I have it, but I’m trying to search for it.”
Sarkissian needed the Muses – in Armenian, musaner.
Every member of the ensemble comes to Armenian folk-jazz fusion from somewhere else, and their
collaboration has produced a style that engages diverse genres while respecting the music’s folk roots.
“So many old songs are gone, lost in a sense,” Sarkissian reflects, nostalgic but optimistic. This experiment, he
hopes, will reinvigorate the tradition by making it both interesting and meaningful.
“So, I’m reaching back as far as I can.”