August 1999

Armen Chakmakian - Ceremonies
TruArt Records 43210-2
Released: 1998

by Srajan Ebaen

Musical Performance ****
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****

[Reviewed on CD]Rising from the ashes of the Grammy Award-winning instrumental group Shadowfax, keyboardist Armen Chakmakian’s first solo album is a splendid return for this accomplished composer/musician. In Ceremonies, he revisits with us the densely layered, rhythmically complex aural landscapes first explored in the Shadowfax releases Esperanto (1992) and Magic Theater (1994).

The Sufi mystic and poet Jalal’uddin Rumi was fond of reminding followers that his was a caravan of utter ruin and despair. He clearly believed that only a heart purged by ordeal was capable of attaining the sublime goal. Chakmakian travels in a similar caravan. Acknowledging in the liner notes that he emerged from a period of intense personal upheaval, the making of this album was a time of healing and closure, hence titles like "A Time to Heal" and "Echoes of a Prayer." But just as Rumi’s statement shouldn’t be misconstrued to condemn his Sufi religion as a sour or miserable affair, don’t infer either that Chakmakian's music is gloomy, heavy or sad. Quite the contrary! True to its Armenian heritage, Ceremonies draws deeply from the exotic wealth of Middle Eastern instrumentation.

Remember the mysterious music to Martin Scorsese’s Last Temptation of Christ? Some of its most haunting moments occurred to the mournful voice of the duduk, a primitive form of ancient Armenian split-reed flute constructed from the apricot tree. The duduk’s most celebrated master, Djivan Gasparyan, is featured on Ceremonies along with John Bilezikjian on oud, Alex di Grassi on acoustic and symp guitars, Doug Lunn on electric bass, and a wide assortment of Middle Eastern and African drums -- like djumbek, dhol and djembe -- all played with abandon by five different rhythm wizards. This eclectic voicing, coupled with cosmopolitan and jazz elements, creates a world-music hybrid.

Structurally, the album alternates between intimate trio numbers and large-scale ensemble work, all of which showcase Chakmakian’s keyboard skills and trademark circular melodies. "Gypsy Rain" opens with a brilliant solo on tres above tasteful synth washes. Against this, the piano slyly introduces the eventual melody in the odd-metered jurjuna rhythm based on five beats. The effect soon becomes hypnotic, lilting, waltz-like, and is then propelled forward once bass and various hand drums enter. Space-lovers alert: the appearance of the full ensemble after the intro positively explodes the soundstage. Your room’s side walls will dematerialize. Once engulfed by the spiraling jurjuna -- flamenco-style hand claps, elegant finger trills on hand percussion, bouncy bass line and all -- piano and oud trade places exploring the melody. The virile, metallic flavor of the Middle Eastern mandolin in heavy attack mode is especially electrifying.

The title track opens with a descending solo on duduk, delivered in all its heartbreaking glory with that unique richness of timbre that is often the hallmark of the most primitive of instruments, such as Carlos Paredes’ cracked Portuguese guitar or Gheorghe Zamfir’s pan flute. Soon spread-out hand percussion and small cymbals establish a typically Middle Eastern pulse, and piano and oud follow the motif established by Djivan Gasparyan in a long melodic arc that crests in a gorgeous peak of instrumental song before it meanders into thematic progressions between piano and oud.

"In Distant Lands," we encounter a medley of four different Armenian folk melodies seamlessly blended into one, riding once again on a rollicking rhythm carpet of undulating and seductive ripples. The duduk weaves its mournful magic surrounded by very tasteful synth ambiance and bubbling, light-fingered advances of piano.

All this and more make Ceremonies yet another glorious example of the manifold effects of Mankind’s first manned space mission. Remember that archetypal outer-space picture of our planet broadcast from the moon by the first astronauts? Our reality, slowly but surely, was transformed into the global village of One World. While politicians, as usual, pursue different agendas, musicians like Armen Chakmakian implement and live the consequences to remind us that we ought to celebrate our unity in diversity.