As we attempt to push forward through a global pandemic, the quest to find solace in our everyday lives is more important than ever before. The medicinal effect of making and/or listening to music is scientifically proven to reduce anxiety—something we are all feeling during an ever-changing and difficult period in the world. World-renowned composer and musician Ara Dinkjian’s recent musical release will certainly provide the needed comfort we all seek at this time.
The concert, originally titled ‘Ara Dinkjian: Both Sides Now’ after a song by musician Joni Mitchell, was recorded live to a sold-out concert crowd at Princeton University in 2017. Dinkjian is joined by several talented musician friends to bring an hour of magic to our ears. The first half of the concert features Dinkjian along with Tamer Pinarbasi (kanun) and Ismail Lumanovski (clarinet), a group known as The Secret Trio. The second half of the concert includes additional artists from The New York Gypsy All-Stars with Pablo Vergara (keyboards), Panagiotis Andreou (bass) and Engin Kaan Gunaydin (percussion).
The Secret Trio is probably one of the greatest Middle Eastern musical trios performing today. Their sound (oud, kanun and clarinet) and connectedness to each other is unparalleled. Pinarbasi and Lumanovski are equal masters on their instruments with Dinkjian, which is clearly demonstrated throughout this album. The songs The Invisible Lover as well as The Last Sultan spotlight their ability to weave in and out of notes along with Ara on oud. In the track Sinanay you can hear the complex fingering dexterity of all three musicians. “The highlight is the interaction of the musicians, seamlessly blending east and west, loud and soft, fast and slow, traditional and contemporary, monophonic and harmonic, microtonal and well-tempered, written and improvised, legato and staccato, electric and acoustic,” said Dinkjian.
There will be some familiar songs on this album as they have appeared on past Dinkjian releases, but there is always a different feel to each version depending on the artists accompanying him on the song. These songs include Ara’s signature composition Picture and Anna Tol’Ya/Homecoming, which allows the listener to become connected to the notes. This release features two newer compositions including American Gypsy (which Ara dedicated to his late friend, musician Haig Hagopian), and Pilaf—an upbeat song that has several bluegrass elements, a favorite musical style for Ara. We also hear Ismail improvise a solo bringing the soul of his clarinet playing to the forefront.
In addition to The Secret Trio, the New York Gypsy All Stars add a level of excitement to their performances on this release. With the addition of percussion and bass, this well-rounded ensemble captivates any live audience. Yet with this album, you are completely mesmerized by the conversation each musician is having with one another. It is intuitive and engaging. When asked how this group of musicians could masterfully improvise music together in a seamless fashion, Dinkjian said, “The brain is a great enemy of music. We must shut off our brain and allow our musical fate to take over.”
Dinkjian has great admiration for the musicians he works with, especially the artists on this recording. “They each have a seemingly endless technique, fearless creativity, gorgeous tone, impeccable intonation, fluid (not mechanical) sense of rhythm, sincere modesty and a generosity of spirit which enables them to serve the song rather than their egos,” he explained. All of their rehearsals are methodical and concentrated, which allows for free expression once they hit the stage. The result is a rare musical delight for audiences around the world.
In watching several of the concert video clips online, I am captivated by the connection each musician shares on stage. Anna Tol’Ya/Homecoming comes to mind again as you watch the ensemble members thoroughly enjoy each other’s music and improvisations on stage. Like a fine wine, this recording improves with each listen, as I hear a new nuance that I missed the last time.
Releasing a recording can be an arduous task, no different than the task of a writer who painstakingly creates a story to perfection. With the popularity of vinyl recordings returning and CDs fading, Dinkjian intended this release to be on an LP, but that would limit the amount of songs due to space restrictions. A pandemic may seem like an unlikely time to produce music, but it was the best time for Dinkjian. Prior to COVID-19, he was touring and didn’t have the time to devote to this recording, something he knew he wanted to release when he heard its superior sound quality. We can only hope that this pandemic allows for more time for Dinkjian to realize other projects for our enjoyment.
Ara Dinkjian: Live at Princeton University is available online through Apple Music and Spotify. If you wish to purchase an actual CD ($15 USA, $20 International), you can do so via Ara’s website.