Sarian’s Debut Album Subtitles Innovates and Infiltrates

Trumpeter and composer Michael Sarian’s debut album Subtitles unites a fusion of influences grounded in trad jazz roots. A consistent edge, imagination, and surprise gives each of the album’s ten tracks a distinct identity. Perhaps Subtitles greatest strength is its constant evolution through lush soundscapes, driving rhythms, and a versatility in musical idioms — it’s tango, it’s big band, it’s klezmer, it’s trad, it’s funky, it’s soul — it’s never predictable and damn it, it’s good.

Sarian’s diverse background inspires a singular sound, one that draws upon Armenian roots informed by years absorbing the sounds of his native Buenos Aires and Toronto before landing in New York City where he assembled a cast of outstanding musicians to deliver a true musical gift.

Jazz albums often deliver a single spice, a unifying flavor that the common ear can latch onto and understand okay, I get it as solos meander between melody sandwiches with safe variations.

Rather than conform, Sutbtitles risks the comforts of belonging (perhaps as Sarian himself) for an astonishing compositional range. In Up, Down, and Back Again and Minga we get a big band feel reminiscent of Saturday Night Live’s enlivening openings and sizzling solos. The tender introduction to El Poeta would perfectly suit the score for a film or television show. To listen is to dance in Boker Gadol, Lallah Gadol — it’s salsa punch meets klezmer all-stars with soaring solos and blistering grooves. Buenos Amigos soothes with a seductive opening groove evoking a 1940s cigar lounge where you might not even notice John Coltrane or Wes Montgomery shredding on stage. Sarian’s South American sensibilities shimmer in Todo Pasa through punchy horns, a beefy bass, and a heart-wrenching band-wide descent that sets up an odyssey of a piano solo by Michael Verselli. La Mansa and Buenos Amigos skillfully weave delicate arpeggiations with stacked horn swells, reflecting a smoother and more traditional arrangement while Sarian’s treatment of Gomidas Vartabed’s (1869–1935) sacred hymn Der Voghormia — a Sunday staple in Orthodox churches across Armenia’s global diaspora — peppers more traditional jazz flavors to thicken the stew of an unmistakable, morose motif.

If one of the primary strengths of Sarian’s Subtitles is the breadth of compositional colors and innovative disposition, then the other strength must be the musicianship. These are guys with chops pushing boundaries. They shine as a team. They shine as individuals. And you leave Subtitles wishing to return, to listen more carefully, to catch that ornament or that unexpected transition or that rhythmic breakdown. Not to be missed are Sarian’s trumpet solo and Ricky Alexander’s clarinet solo in Boker Ghaddol, Lallah Ghadol; trombonist Alan Ferber on Minga; drummer Josh Bailey’s grooves on El Poeta; and the entire horn section’s collective rises and falls throughout the album.

Though beauty and perfection are only attained in their pursuit and never fully realizable as ideals, the listener will sense in Der Voghormia a concerted effort to stay true to the source melody despite a demonstrated ability to render a truer reimagining. Many of the songs, like La Mansa, have dramatic opening passages that sometimes overstay their welcome, as does the main theme in Minga present throughout the melodies, solos, and backgrounds. Solos meander on occasion.

As the French romantic Victor Hugo stated, “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.” Perhaps Sarian’s disposition to innovate — an inherent pivot away from the stringent politics of aesthetic identity in New York jazz — reflects a deeper pivoting in identity, one unique to a composer who, like many endowed with the tensions of a transnational or diasporic identity, cannot fundamentally belong. As the cultural theorist Stuart Hall observed:

diaspora does not refer us to those scattered tribes whose identity can only be secured in relation to some sacred homeland to which they must at all costs return, even if it means pushing other people into the sea. This is the old, imperializing, the hegemonising, form of ‘ethnicity’…The diaspora experience as I intend it here is defined, not by essence or purity, but by the recognition of a necessary heterogeneity and diversity; by a conception of ‘identity’ which lives with and through, not despite, difference; by hybridity. Diaspora identities are those which are constantly producing and reproducing themselves anew, through transformation and difference.*

It is through this lens that we can appreciate Sarian’s spirit in Subtitles — a stylistic melting point rooted in the firm soils of jazz — and look forward to his future contributions.

*Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” in Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, ed. Jonathan Rutherford (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990), 235. Retrieved from Brent Hayes Edwards’ article All Blues in the journal Social Text, June 2014. More at:

**Article originally published in JazzTimes, March 2015.