GREAT BARRINGTON -- In live performances and a multi-faceted discography, Armen Donelian, the much admired pianist and composer, has fused a solid foundation in the music of the classical masters with his pursuit of the jazz genre.
And he has embarked on a fresh recording adventure close to his heart -- and to his roots.
"Sayat-Nova: Songs of My Ancestors" was released this month on the Sunnyside label. "You might be hard pressed to categorize this music because it’s so deeply influenced by classical, jazz and Armen’s Armenian folk heritage," observed Edward Bride, chairman of Berkshire Jazz, Inc., "so the safest category is probably improvisational music."
Indicative of Bride’s esteem for Donelian, Berkshire Jazz is presenting a recording release party at 4 p.m. Sunday in Castle Street Café’s Celestial Bar, where the Armen Donelian Trio -- Donelian, David Clark, bass, and George Schuller, drums -- will offer three sets of music to celebrate the occasion as part of National Jazz Appreciation Month.
Born in 1712 in a small northern Armenia village, Sayat-Nova was a notable troubadour eventually summoned as an entertainer to the royal court of Georgian King Irakli II.
"He was a self-taught musician, and a great poet, as well as a singer," explained Donelian in a phone conversation earlier this week from his home and studio in Hudson, N.Y. "His poetry is amazing in its complexity and beauty. He wrote hundreds of love songs and odes."
Donelian who suggests in liner annotations that Sayat-Nova’s verses often are compared to Shakespeare and the beauty of his melodies rank with those of the greatest European composers.
Donelian, whose ancestors migrated to this country after escaping the brutal Turkish genocide in 1915, obviously was influenced by Armenian culture. But his early, stronger influences involved his father’s record collection of classical music -- Beethoven, Bach and Mozart -- and of the giants of jazz.
He remembers first playing by ear on what he calls "a derelict upright piano," which led to lessons from a local teacher, followed by enrollment at the Westchester Conservatory in White Plains, N.Y., where an Austrian Jew named Michael Pollon, who was trained in Berlin and escaped the Holocaust in 1939, provided a strong classical background.
"Thanks to him, when I was 17, in 1968, upon graduation from high school, I gave a recital of works by Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Debussy and Prokofiev," Donelian said.
A major factor in Donelian’s life was his study with the great jazz pianist Richie Beirich, "whose formidable grasp of classical and 20th-century music and their application to jazz improvisation expanded my sonic horizons," said Donelian. Thereafter, he performed with such luminaries as Sonny Rollins, Chet Baker and Paquito D’Rivera before forming his own ensembles and initiating his successful series of recordings.
Donelian, who confessed being confounded earlier by the odd rhythms and the modes of Middle Eastern music, said he was drawn to it beginning in his 30s, performing with a number of Armenian musicians and groups, which led to a defining journey to Armenia for performances. While there, a colleague recommended a rare 1946 Soviet volume of Sayat-Nova’s unabridged poems, which served as a basis for his selections on "Sayat-Nova: Songs of My Ancestors."
The recording has two parts, the first devoted to piano solos, Disk 2, with the Trio. "The process for arranging happened very organically, over quite a bit of time," Donelian explained. "I strove to preserve both the content and the character of the original melodies, imbuing them with my jazz sensibilities, my jazz harmonies and rhythms.
"There were those that just naturally felt they needed treatment by the trio; others felt more personal and reflective. The music just decided it for me."