As with many genres, there are a number of elements that can define a truly great jazz album. While things like melody, technicality and innovation come to mind, something nearly all of my all-time favorite jazz albums have is a captivating first moment to initiate the proceedings, particularly with piano-driven jazz. “In a Sentimental Mood” by John Coltrane and Duke Ellington is a brilliantly executed example of this concept, along with Coltrane’s incredible rendition of “My Favorite Things.” To me, this has a great deal to do with the piano’s crucial, multifaceted role in melodic jazz; it’s singular ability to shift between a source of ambiance, a centerpiece of melody and a driving, percussive force. So when a cherished refrain hits on jazz favorite, the warmth and infatuation are immediate.
Suffice it to say, my initial point of praise for Transition is not only Zela Margossian‘s exceptional ability behind the piano, but specifically, her attention-commanding flourish to open the album with the title track. With but a flitting sequence of notes, Margossian instantly sets the tone for the strong elegance that dominates Transition extremely well-composed track list. What’s perhaps most welcoming about her introduction is the opening it creates for the remainder of her quintet to shine right alongside her. Margossian proves to be both an incredible player and bandleader throughout the quintet’s debut outing, leading the group through gorgeous Armenian jazz with a strong, rhythmic core. It’s easy to bask in the album’s beauty one moment before miming along with your air instrument of choice to some truly passionate and invigorating performances.
Transition thrives by drawing from expansive musical traditions and coupling them with chamber music atmosphere and interplay. My background with Armenian music starts and ends with System of a Down, but even so, the warm, inviting textures proved alluring and strikingly familiar throughout the album. Given Armenia’s location, it’sp perhaps no surprise that the musical traditions on display here seem to splice traditions of Klezmer music and Arabic jazz. That underlying inviting nature allows the musicianship to shine that much more strongly, as any preconceived unfamiliarity is dispelled upon just the initial listen. This even makes the alternate take of “The Child in Me” feel like a new take on a classic tune.
But before then, there’s plenty of final, album takes to enjoy first. The aforementioned title track is a clear highlight beyond its enticing initial piano notes. The dialogue between Margossian’s keys and bassist Elsen Price’s Arabic bass lines feel like nighttime magic over a sandy plain. As she continues to do throughout the album, Margossian drives the melody and pace of the track beautifully with her expressive yet methodical playing; her keystrokes have a fantastic story to tell, but always with vivid, precise detail. This becomes incredibly apparent on the whimsical, infectious refrain that defines “Ceasefire.” The playful syncopation between Stuart Vandegraaff’s clarinet and the piano is bolstered by shuffling, energetic percussion from Alexander Inman-Hislop and Adem Yilmaz. Having two percussionists is clearly an asset, with Inman-Hislop’s work behind the kit being perfectly accented by chimes, shakers and various hand drums. And so as not to venture too far from his talents, Vandergraadd’s playing throughout is truly spectacular. The collective’s work on this track along warrants favorable comparison to Wacław Zimpel as well as his work with Saagara.
Margossian and Price’s bass-piano harmony is again on display with “Shounch (Breath/Inhale),” with liberated performances on woodwind and percussion flowing over the melodic backbone propped up by their keys and strings. Inman-Hislop and Yilmaz take a turn in the spotlight with some extended percussive back-and-forth on “Doumé,” followed by Margossian jamming with herself with a bouncy rhythm on the low end of the piano and free exploration on the mid-range keys. After the jazzy and periodically meditative “The Child in Me,” the quintet explore some darker hues with “Mystic Flute: A Version,” anchored by some haunting bass bowing by Price. Finally, the group pulls out all the stops on “Aleeq (Waves),” with everyone bringing their own elements to the table with an added ir of finality. The entire track feels a bit more lightweight and mystical, as if the players are turning into wisps slowly fading away into the night.
I’m hardly surprised when Lachlan and Art As Catharsis come out with another great jazz album, but they’ve truly outdone themselves by finding and supporting the release of Transition. Margossian is clearly a phenomenal bandleader, and she deserves the ability to bring her compositions to a wider and wider audience. There’s so much on Transition that succeeds by a variety of different metrics, and the album will be an immediate highlight for those unfamiliar with Armenian music. There’s a rich tapestry of traditional music in the world that American listeners (like me) aren’t exposed to nearly as much as we should. Margossian offers yet another reason why my infatuation with jazz, world music and the synthesis of the two continues to grow year after year. There aren’t many albums that blend melodic enjoyability and technical prowess this seamlessly, which is why I emphatically recommend this be the next jazz album you introduce to your rotation before the year comes to a close. At the very least, it certainly deserves consideration as an album of the year contender amid another stellar year in jazz.
Transition is available now via the always fantastic Art As Catharsis. You can stream and purchase the album from the Bandcamp link above.