Michael Sarian

Michael Sarian Breathes Authenticity Into His Free Jazz

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NEW YORK — Michael Sarian is a man with a background as diverse as the music he plays, jazz, and the city he calls home now.

Born in Toronto to a Canadian mother and a Romanian-born Armenian father and raised in Buenos Aires, he attended college in Pennsylvania, and currently lives in New York City where he got his graduate music education; he is a native speaker of both English and Spanish. His musical language touches on all these influences, especially the Latin jazz influence of his earlier career, but in the past several years he has not only delved further into his Armenian identity, but expanded his horizons into Free Jazz, allowing him to express himself with a more authentic voice all his own.

Diverse Roots

Sarian’s father was born in Romania and his grandmother in Istanbul, but her family roots were in Van. As his family fled the Ceausescu regime, most settled in Argentina, but Sarian’s father went to Canada to get a college education and married a Canadian woman. A year after Sarian’s birth, the family joined his father’s relatives in Buenos Aires.

Sarian stated that his family was not too involved in the large Armenian community in Argentina, but like many Armenian children, he was given piano lessons at a young age. In middle school and high school he began to play the trumpet in the school band. Looking for music to listen to that included his chosen instrument, he discovered the jazz of Miles Davis and so many other trumpet masters.

Following his interest in music, he returned to North America, and attended Muhlenberg College, in Allentown, Penn., graduating with a BA in music theory and composition. He then returned to Argentina where he worked as a music teacher in a K-12 school. He didn’t find much of a jazz scene in Buenos Aires, he said, and so, in 2012, he returned to New York to pursue a master’s degree in jazz performance at New York University.

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Said Sarian, “The thing about New York, is that there’s a jazz scene, I didn’t find it in Buenos Aires. It’s all here in New York. You see what others are doing and know that it’s a possibility.”

Armenian Connection

In 2012, the Armenian General Benevolent Union’s (AGBU) New York central office created a performing arts department, and for one of their first concerts they reached out to Sarian to play. It was to be a concert of “Armenian Jazz” featuring local musicians along with legendary percussionist-bandleader-composer Arto Tuncboyaciyan. Sarian began to delve into his Armenian identity and explore Armenian music.

After speaking with Hayk Arsenyan, a classical pianist who was the director of the AGBU’s performing arts department, he began interning a few hours a week, and now serves as Performing Arts Coordinator. The department consists of Arsenyan and Sarian, who work together to organize projects like concerts and mini film festivals, as well as the flagship Musical Armenia program.

Meanwhile, getting to learn about Armenian music and culture significantly affected Sarian’s search for his artistic voice. In the Armenian experience, “Everything comes together, like a melting pot — like New York,” Sarian says. “It forces you to be honest to what you’re creating.”

By 2013, Sarian was attempting to find new ways to express himself through jazz music. He decided to look for new sources of inspiration rather than the traditional jazz and pop standards that most musicians in the scene use. “That was when I first started researching Armenian music. I made an arrangement of Komitas, Der Voghormya,” he says. “It’s been really a never-ending well of knowledge of beautiful sounds and culture.”

Sarian soon became a proponent of Armenian music and culture to the outside world. “As I discovered more and learned more, and became more connected to who I am in a very, very, big way, it’s my mission to include Armenian sounds and Armenian music in everything I do as a musician and as a leader.”

He speaks of arrangements or jazz interpretations of traditional Armenian pieces like Dele Yaman or Komitas’ Chinar Es. “It’s very important for me as a musician who plays to non-Armenian audiences. I’m not here to give a history lesson, or geopolitics. But I say, ‘this is a piece by Sayat-Nova, an 18th century Armenian troubadour, and so on’,” said Sarian. But much of the classics of Armenian folk music have been interpreted and reinterpreted countless times over the 20th, and now 21st century.

He said, “It took me a long time to figure out, because there are so many albums of musicians doing pieces by Komitas. It took me a while to figure out what I could bring to the table.”

Sarian states that for similar reasons, he doesn’t really enjoy playing or recording traditional jazz standards — the old songs from the ‘30s and ‘40s like All of Me, Body and Soul, and so on, that show up in every pro jazz musician’s repertoire as the basis of constant improvisation. Why listen to Sarian play the standards that have already been given definitive recordings by the great musicians of the past, whether in the jazz or Armenian realms? Yet, Sarian retains a love for melody that is perhaps deep in his Armenian roots.

The combination of showcasing classic melodies and the freedom to go far off the beaten path in his improvisations are a hallmark of Sarian’s work, especially his latest album, “Living at the End of the World.”

Free Jazz

Sarian’s early releases, with a septet, were much more Latin-influenced and closer to a big band sound. They were “arranged, through-composed, very different,” he says. “I slowly started to think about doing this quartet [that he now works with].”

Aside from Sarian on trumpet and flugelhorn, the group includes Santiago Leibson on piano and keyboard instruments, Marty Kenney on bass, and Nathan Ellman-Bell on drums.

Recording engineer Luis Bacque was an integral part of the music-making process. The first album with the new group was “New Aurora” released in 2020.

“It led me to start writing in a different way. I got into ‘free jazz.’ It’s all about listening and creating in the moment. But on the flipside I also like melodies, so I’ve been writing in a way that’s like, I have a melody or a traditional song structure, and then re-improvise. What I do is, here’s the melody, providing the song with an aesthetic, then a free jazz section.”

Starting a song with a basic melody and eventually entering into an improvisational section is a basic concept in jazz (and for that matter, in many Middle Eastern styles of music, including Armenian “kef music.”) What sets Sarian’s work apart is the free jazz element. While traditional jazz (generally) operates by allowing the performers to improvise on top of the chord changes of the song which were already established during the melodic portion, the free jazz which Sarian was drawn to encourages an even more “anything goes” approach. There is no need to stick to a fixed rotation of chord changes over and over until the end of the song. Instead, Sarian allows the opening melody to establish an “aesthetic” or general mood and flavor of the piece, and then “each improvised section in one way or another is going to follow or respect the opening melodic section.”

Sarian was inspired in his free jazz ethos by a few influential trumpet players, including Enrico Rava, Tomasz Stanko and Kenny Wheeler. He also cites the Armenian-American drummer Paul Motian as one of the “leaders of the free jazz movement,” whose music is “just really, really inspiring.” Unfortunately, Sarian never got to meet Motian, who passed away just before his arrival in New York.

The freedom to explore almost anything in a musical way that “free jazz” offers gave Sarian the encourage to try new things. Some of the “weird noises” that the listener will hear on Sarian’s new album are things that he figured out how to do while tooting on his newly-acquired trumpet as a child.

“It took me till my 30s to think that I can do that [in a serious piece of music],” Sarian says.

New Record

Sarian’s latest album, “Living at the End of the World,” was inspired by Covid. The confinements and chaotic, never-ending situation caused anxiety, but Sarian wanted to spin the story in a hopeful manner. The title track of the album starts with a bluesy shuffle riff reminiscent of swing jazz, to depict the carefree times before Covid began. Then the improvisational section of the song delves into a chaotic world where the Moog synthesizer creates an alien soundscape, before the song returns to the original jazz riff.

“It’s not that the world is coming to an end, but that we are temporarily inhabiting this space,” noted Sarian.

The Armenian segment of the album is found on the very first song, a reinterpretation of Sayat-Nova’s classic Yis Kou Ghimetn Chim Gidi [I didn’t know your true value]. Sarian first heard the melody in a recording by oudist Raffi Wartanian and decided to see “how I could incorporate this piece of music into my repertoire.” Of the composition he says “the melody is so beautiful and speaks for itself. For the harmony I messed around a bit and changed some chords. [I wanted to have] it be a part of what we are presenting musically as a whole.” After a free jazz section in the middle of the song, the melody brings the listener back out again, which is the standard format on most of Sarian’s recordings.

Armenian melodies are “simple and beautiful and have a lot of meaning on their own,” says Sarian. “It gives us a lot of freedom to mess around it without ruining them.” He also mentions his unique trumpet tonality on the track, which was likewise inspired by Armenian folk music, stating “there’s certain things I can try to emulate that are similar to the duduk, like all the vibrato and airiness.” One of the standout tracks on the album is Cinta Marina, which was inspired by the Argentine singer-songwriter Belen Pasqualini. Coming to Sarian with some lyrics, she asked if he would write music to accompany.

Somewhat unconventionally, Sarian decided to present the lyrics in more of a spoken-word format with music behind it, though occasionally the vocalist goes into a melodic passage. The song was performed on the album by Chilean singer Camila Meza, who also plays guitar on the track.

Music Business

Sarian mentioned that the music business is interesting these days. It’s “a bit of a saturated market,” he said, because “everyone can release music whenever they want, but we are all kind of competing for the same audience.”

Bandcamp has replaced the traditional record store, while streaming services like Spotify have largely replaced radio. For this reason, the new album is only available on the Bandcamp app for the first few months of the release. It is also available for preorder on vinyl. After a few months, it will be available on streaming services as well. Sarian has been touring and is headed to Rochester, Buffalo, and Toronto in the near future. He often hires local rhythm sections (piano, bass, and drums) rather than bring his band with him. This means that the music turns out completely different every time – which is kind of the goal of jazz anyway. “It’s also forced me to have a really open mind as to what my music can sound like and can be,” he said.

As to his future plans? “Hustling, keep writing music, record again – I’d love to do a live album with the group.” He has an album coming out in February as well as a current solo project, “After the Rain,” with trumpet and effects. “I’m trying to be honest to who I am as a musician,” Sarian said. What he’s trying to show with his music in broader terms is that “avant-garde can be accessible. The album is half free jazz, camouflaged with melodies and harmonies.”

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