Pianist-Composer Armen Donelian Reinvents Himself at Age 71 on "Fresh Start," Set for April 1 Release by Sunnyside Records

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The veteran pianist and educator Armen Donelian didn't use the Covid-19 downtime to reinvent his repertoire as much as he deepened his pianistic approach and sharpened his ears in the context of a supremely sensitive new trio with bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Dennis Mackrel. The group's unabashedly beautiful debut, "Fresh Start," is Donelian's 14th album and his 11th for Sunnyside, the label that has documented the bulk of his work as a leader since the mid-1980s and will release the new CD on April 1.

"Fresh Start," the new Sunnyside Records release by pianist-composer Armen Donelian.

I was looking to deepen how we listen and interact with each other in a responsive way, taking every particle of time as an opportunity to connect with and support each other, contributing in some way to a more beautiful sound.

Pianist-composer Armen Donelian reemerges from the COVID-inspired shutdowns with a newly refined conception on both instrument and pen on "Fresh Start," to be released April 1 on Sunnyside Records. The album is the recorded premiere of Donelian’s new trio featuring bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Dennis Mackrel.

Sidelined like all musicians by the worldwide pandemic, Donelian was further removed from performing when a shoulder injury left him temporarily unable to play the piano. Ever resourceful, the 71-year-old simply wrote new music instead, giving himself something to workshop when he regained his playing ability.

In neither capacity, though, was Donelian content to rest on his laurels. “The pandemic … was an opportunity for me to reexamine my approach to the piano and composing,” he says. It was in that spirit that he created the trio with Anderson, a longtime friend, and Mackrel, a new acquaintance (but a frequent bandstand partner of Anderson’s). He broadened his new approach to incorporate his collaborators.

“I was looking to deepen how we listen and interact with each other in a responsive way,” Donelian explains, “taking every particle of time as an opportunity to connect with and support each other, contributing in some way to a more beautiful sound.”

A more beautiful sound is certainly what they achieved. From the sweet sensitivity of Donelian’s album-opening “Noviembre” to the percussive “Madagascar” (featuring a dazzling Mackrel solo) to the giddy, rattling 7/4 of “Janet Left the Planet,” the ensemble provides ample evidence of their mastery and imagination, both as individuals and collectively.

Yet Donelian’s musical reboot is hardly a rejection of his place in the jazz tradition. Indeed, Fresh Start also offers a unique kind of contextualization for the leader. His five original compositions are joined by two pieces from the Great American Songbook—Harry Warren’s “Never Let Me Go” and Herb Magidson & Allie Wrubel’s “I’m Stepping Out with a Memory Tonight” (which marks Donelian’s vocal debut on record)—Donelian also explores works connected to his own past and present. “Gale” and “Day Break” are compositions by two of his mentors, pianist Richie Beirach and saxophonist Makanda Ken McIntyre, respectively. In addition, composer Vatan Rajan Singh (“Ferry Maiden”) and Sophia Bondi (“In the Western Night”) are both former students of Donelian’s. The album thus establishes him as one important link in a long, rich chain.

Armen Donelian was born December 1, 1950 to a family of Armenian immigrants in New York City. He began studying piano at the age of seven, enrolling at the Westchester Conservatory of Music. At 12, he discovered jazz by way of a trad band led by noted studio guitarist Arthur Ryerson; Armen’s older brother played clarinet in the band, and he himself eventually became its pianist.

He studied music theory and composition at Columbia University—then entered a different sort of finishing school via the tutelage of Richie Beirach. The celebrated pianist was the first in a long line of musical mentors: Donelian soon found himself sharing bandstands with Mongo Santamaria, Sonny Rollins, Chet Baker, and Billy Harper. Throughout it all (though especially while in Harper’s band), he worked to develop his own sound, beginning a solo career in earnest with his 1981 debut Stargazer.

A dozen more albums followed over the next 30-odd years, including the acclaimed releases "Secrets" (his 1988 album for Sunnyside), "All or Nothing at All" (2006), "Leapfrog" (2011), and "Sayat-Nova: Songs of My Ancestors" (2014).

Proud as he is of his accomplishments, Donelian nonetheless takes a thoughtful and critical approach to his music, leading to the kind of reassessment that characterizes "Fresh Start." “Instead of focusing on what I was playing, I was focusing more on how I was playing, on touch, expression, and storytelling, allowing the sound to happen in its own way,” he says. “That was the main focus of this album.”

Donelian and his new trio will be performing this spring at the following venues: 3/18 Hudson (NY) Hall; 3/19 Maureen’s Jazz Cellar, Nyack, NY; 4/24 Claverack (NY) Public Library; 5/22 Ossining (NY) Public Library. In addition, Donelian will be based at the Bucharest University of Music (Romania) 5/2-19 in a Fulbright Specialist residency.

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