I’ve had this group in my sights for a year or so, particularly since they created a hubbub following a win in the 2017 Yamaha Solo Jazz Sessions and a jam session with the UK’s keyboard behemoth, Snarky Puppy’s Bill Laurance made some headlines on social media. I got my chance at The Vortex.
The band is clearly aiming - like many others - to freshen up and energise the jazz piano trio format, and they do it pretty successfully. The passionate heart of the band is pianist Arman Vardanyan from Armenia, joined by drummer Caroline Scott and electric bassist David Horler. Influences like Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock are clearly there in a fiery mixture of jazz, latin, fusion and prog rock, but they’ve got enough of their own musical sensibility to hint at a long career ahead.
Over two sets, Cygnus Flare played twelve tracks, each set beginning with a solo piano intro from Vardanyan before the brakes were let off as Horler and Scott - whose propulsive, cocksure drumming is the grist in the melodic mill of the band - pumped up the volume, pace and intricacy to keep up with Vardanyan’s Olympic-100-metres-fast fingering on the keyboard.
Whether on piano or electric piano/keys, the band sound was electric to the touch and complicated ... but in an uncomplicated way, if you catch my drift. Think E.S.T. on steroids, perhaps. Cygnus City had a super heavy drum opening leading into a simple chord pattern, building up the volume and intensity, and was one of their best tracks.
Tunnel Travel had a more ominous, minor key opening (many of their tracks, I think, tended towards the minor) on electric piano with some Flying Wallenda-type keyboard acrobatics from Vardanyan over a terrific drum beat. The band were prepared to go off piste with their time signatures, a cover of a Sam Rivers tune in 7/8 was rather lovely; while a new tune debuted in the second half with a Copacabana-meets-the-Black-Sea vibe - built around seven notes given out as part of a competition - in 19/8. That’s another time signature to tick off in my i-Spy book of complex jazz time signatures.
Some of the best parts of the gig were where they didn’t play: this is a band that makes great use of pregnant pauses and sudden handbrake-heavy stops very well, as they did on Moonflower; there was a certain heart-in-mouth quality as drummer, bassist and keyboardist looked at each other momentarily as if to ask … ‘are we doing this?’ They did. And they did it well!
Ninth number Cosmic Adventures was the standout track [Hang on …. Cygnus Flare, Cosmic Adventures, Moonflower …. someone in the band’s been binging on Professor Brian Cox box sets!], anthemic, brassy and long, with a super-catchy hook and a number of movements. This was almost prog-like in its complexity and feel, but wonderfully rumbustious in its overall impact.
A mournful note was struck with A Million Fallen Stars, the keyboardist’s hymn to the Armenian genocide of 1915 (for which Erdogan’s Turkey still locks up opponents for even mentioning); the track itself was surprisingly peppy with strong drum fills and pace-setting.
Cygnus Flare has an undefinable quality that marks the group out for potential sustained success, and I look forward to a first album of original tracks, which must at some point soon be coming.
I could have spent Sunday evening ironing my work shirts for the week or doing my expenses. Instead, I went to the Vortex…which is probably the only bright spot in Dalston….and was thoroughly entertained for two hours, for only a tenner.