NEW YORK (Jazz-Quad) — Pianist, composer, bandleader and educator Armen Donelian has carved out an enviable career spanning four decades, including seminal stints with Sonny Rollins, Billy Harper, Chet Baker and Mongo Santamaria.
His new album, “Leapfrog,” his ninth release for Sunnyside, due for release September 13, should go a long way in rectifying his relatively unsung status as an improvising artist of the highest order.
Working with an exceptional band composed of Dutch tenor saxophonist Marc Mommaas, guitarist Mike Moreno, veteran bassist Dean Johnson and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, Donelian focuses on his spacious, lyrically-charged compositions. “The inspiration for this music came from my reflections on where the world is going these days,” Donelian says. “There’s so much regurgitation of older styles in jazz today, I feel the need to carry the ball a little further. As Diz once said, it’s about keeping one foot in the tradition, and one in the future.”
Determined to distill each composition to its essentials, Donelian has honed a group concept that flows from his belief that less is indeed more. “I like stating an idea and leaving space for listeners to absorb it,” Donelian says. “It’s especially important for band members to be mindful of space, so they can really hear each other. When there’s too much happening there’s not much listening going on.”
One explanation for the band’s profound affinity for Donelian’s music is that he shares significant history with these players and often helped shape them during their formative years. His collaboration with Johnson stretches back to the 1980s, when Johnson was establishing himself as an in-demand accompanist through his work with Gerry Mulligan. Donelian met Mommaas while teaching at the Manhattan School of Music shortly after the saxophonist arrived in New York City from the Netherlands; they have developed potent bandstand chemistry over the past decade.
Donelian first met Moreno while teaching in the New School’s jazz program about 10 years ago, just as Moreno was starting his ascent to his current status as one of the most esteemed young guitarists in New York. And he encountered Sorey as a standout high school student in the mid-1990s, a relationship that continued when the drummer enrolled in William Paterson University, where Donelian is also on faculty.