Born in Toronto, Canada and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina from the age of one, trumpeter and composer Michael Sarian has been calling New York City home for the past eight years. After spending his years in the US fronting large ensembles (his septet Michael Sarian & The Chabones and big band The Big Chabones) he presents his latest project, which he dubbed New Aurora. His fourth release as a bandleader, New Aurora showcases Sarian as the sole melodic voice in this acoustic quartet, a clear departure from his previous releases which feature extensive four-horn arrangements, electronics and hard-hitting grooves.
Arguably in gestation since Sarian’s first release in 2014, this album comes as a result of engineer/producer Luis Bacque’s incessant encouragement (nae, insistence) that the trumpeter venture into a freer, more acoustic setting that would feature his own playing, particularly on the flugelhorn, at the forefront of the ensemble’s sound (sure enough, Sarian plays flugelhorn on all tracks save the first). Inspired by the music of trumpet greats Kenny Wheeler, Tomasz Stańko, Enrico Rava, and legendary Armenian/American drummer Paul Motian, Sarian ventured into Bacque Recording Studios to test the waters of this new musical direction. After an afternoon spent at the New Jersey recording studio with Santiago Leibson (piano), Matt Pavolka (bass) and Dayeon Seok (drums), the session yielded the first two tracks of what would become Michael Sarian’s New Aurora.
Sarian began writing the first of these, This Is Only The Beginning, in a hotel room in Florida during the first days of 2019, while reading Japanese writer Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore. The novel tells the story of a thirty-something artist facing an early onset mid-life crisis, who, after a devastating separation, decides to quit his lucrative career as a portrait painter, retreat into the mountains and pursue a more fulfilling path of abstract self-expression, proclaiming ‘this is only the beginning.’
Scottie(33), in honor of the great 1990s Chicago Bulls player Scottie Pippen, followed soon after. The opening theme is in 9 (the result of multiplying both 3s of his jersey number) and presents a subdued atmosphere. Originally meant to be a more up-beat composition, Sarian discovered that the only nickname Pippen had during his playing days was No Tippin’ Pippen, because he was a notoriously poor tipper, and decided to convey that sense of disappointment in the music. The choppy, hip-hop groove in 7, then 15, gives the track a big finish because, after all, Scottie did win six championships. The remaining eight tracks were recorded during two sessions in December of 2019, with Marty Kenney playing bass.
The project gets its name from the track Aurora, which Sarian began writing on February 15, 2019. Although the word literally means dawn, which is the meaning Sarian hopes to convey behind the project, the composition came after hearing of a mass shooting that day in Aurora, Illinois. The alternation between sus2 and sus4 chords throughout the first section, paired with a simple melody, bear a somber mood, a hopelessness which Sarian felt assuming #Aurora was trending because of the 2012 mass shooting there, only to find out there another had taken place.
Dedicated to his cousin Nick, Primo (cousin in Spanish), is arguably the most ‘straight-ahead’ track of the album. The idea for the composition came after getting a copy of Nicolas Slonimsky’s book Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns. A true procrastinator, Sarian based the composition on a scale found on just the second page, in the ‘Interpolation of Two Notes’ in the Tritone Progression section. With the flat two, major third, sharp fourth, perfect fifth and flat seventh, the scale has an altered blues feel to it, which was perfect for Sarian’s primo since he has an affinity for the genre. The marking at the top of the chart is fast + gritty swing, with no chords to be found, just the scale the tune is based on.
Paying homage to his Armenian heritage, Sarian arranged two pieces by Komitas, the celebrated Armenian monk, composer, musicologist, and founder of the Armenian national school of music (who last year celebrated his 150th birthday). Originally a love song, Dle Yaman became a song of loss and longing after the Armenian genocide, and is considered to be one of the folk songs that best represents the soul of Armenia. The exact meaning of the title is unclear, and there is no specific translation. The theme is first presented on its own by Sarian’s trumpet, and then restated with the rhythm section playing roots and fifths. The piece is used as an introduction for Sarian’s original piece Portrait of a Postman, inspired by the music of the Paul Motian Trio, and named after the Vincent Van Gogh painting.
The second piece by Komitas on the album, Chinar Es, translates quite literally to “You Are A Tree.” Sarian says “The title refers to the poplar tree, and back in the day this was apparently something men told women when trying to flirt, as in ‘You’re as tall and slender as a tree’.” He says that much to his dismay, this pick-up line does not hold water any longer in Yerevan. Sarian arranged this piece using the traditional Armenian rhythm curcuna in 10/8, with the melody played loosely over pedal tones.
Drawing on his own family’s heritage in Armenia and Eastern Europe, Mountains deals with the landscapes his ancestors had to navigate, from historical Armenia in Eastern Turkey, to Istanbul, to Romania during and after the genocide, all the way to Argentina, Canada, and back to Argentina, for him to finally find his current home in New York City. A nod to his family name (sar means mountain in Armenian, and sarian translates to son of the mountain), the track has three layers working together: a drum groove in 5 based loosely on Armenian rhythms, the bass and piano playing a static two beat back and forth, and a floating melody on the flugelhorn.
Sarian introduced a new piece the evening before the first December session, titled The Morning After. It starts out with a Beatles-esque piano motif, and conveys the frantic despair one might have after a big night out, which as fun as it might be, many times comes with self-doubt the next morning, giving in to the briefest of existential crisis. The shortest track in the album, the tune breaks down into a completely free improvisation between the four musicians, only to be brought back into the melody before an abrupt finish.
Colorado Yeta is the only ‘recycled’ tune of the album, which Sarian recorded with his septet and released on his last record. Literally translated into Spanish (or Argentine slang), it means ‘Bad Luck Ginger’, and expresses the sorrows of growing up as a redhead in Argentina.
The last track on the album, Monk’s Ask Me Now, is a result of the session finishing ahead of time. Seeing as the bass and drum-set were all packed up, Sarian suggested they track a duet version of the ballad with piano. The album closes out with the second take (which, appropriately, was the last song tracked during the session). It serves as somewhat of a palate cleanser after almost an hour of original compositions and arrangements.
Released September 4, 2020.
Produced by Michael Sarian and Luis Bacque.
Recorded, mixed & mastered by Luis Bacque @ Bacque Recording Engineering Studios in Roselle, New Jersey.
(Luis Bacque uses Sonoris Software.)
Album artwork & design: Jamie Breiwick @ B Side Graphics.