Alexis Avakian ‘Miasin’ CD (Diggin Music) 4/5

French-Armenian saxophonist Alexis Avakian grew up in Marseilles, but it is clearly his Armenian heritage that comes to the fore when making music. Having learnt to play piano, guitar and saxophone at an early age, a decisive meeting with Archie Shepp firmly planted the jazz improv seed into the musician’s head and heart, and this album truly reflects a wonderful balance between Western jazz and Armenian folk music.

Avakian’s enthralling music has been developing nicely over the years, with two previous albums (2014’s “Digging Chami” and 2016’s “Hi Dream”) featuring the same line-up of musicians leading the group with an evolving, natural continuity, to this new release. With Fabrice Moreau on drums, Mauro Gargano on bass, Ludovic Allainmat on piano, and Artyom Minasyan on doudouk or chevi (traditional flute), the quintet bring yet more colour and texture with this new recording, evoking the essence of Armenia even more so than on their earlier releases.

At the heart of this music is the beautiful integration of the instruments used, especially the saxophone and the doudouk. Armenian singer Miqayel Voskanian adds a distinctive voice to selected tracks, his yearning, evocative vocals just adding to the overall atmosphere. But it is the combination of tenor sax and traditional flute that are at the core of the music. Sometimes in unison, sometimes almost duelling, yet always on the same, wonderful wavelength, the path of Avakian’s compositions is firmly set with the traditional folk melodies artfully integrated with a jazz improv ethos.

That’s not to say the music is in any way contrived or too pre-planned. Listening to “Improvisation pour Julien” is a classic example of how these tunes often develop in surprising ways, whether that be through a melancholic yearning, or a spirited, rousing effervescence. The bass, drums and piano alongside the two lead instruments make for a beguiling mix. There’s a telepathic-like understanding that flows between all of the musicians, with tunes like the emotive “Yaounde” swirling in a haze of Coltrane-like spirituality, “Hugo’s Jokes” twisting and turning between its East and West influences, and “Circus” with its wild and experimental juices flowing freely. All of the tunes have something fresh and invigorating to offer.

With “Miasin” Alexis Avakian has found a unique balance of sound that, together with his band, brings to life an impressive musical adventure that unites contemporary jazz and Armenian culture, creating a little world of his own in which the musicians are free to express themselves and craft some mighty fine music in the process. Highly recommended listening.

Mike Gates