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Armen Nalbandian: More than a Musician
Armen Nalbandian is one of Fresno's most recognized citizens. Nalbandian has singlehandedly created a music scene that nestles itself somewhere between the Fresno Philharmonic and the shows at the Starline. He has unapologetically been a driving force in Fresno music as the Musical Director/Resident Artist of the Fresno Art Museum and a highly successful bandleader and composer in his own right. I suppose you would be hard pressed to find a fan of music that lives in the Central Valley unaware of Nalbandian, but it seems that while he's regularly written about and covered by radio and TV, his musical abilities have been more highly regarded on a national level. How many people than live in Fresno have been recognized by Wikipedia or have hundreds of Google entries written about them. While his music will almost always be covered before anything else in the press he recieves, his humanitarian work has caught the eye (and pen) of quite a few writers.
I think most people caught wind of Nalbandian a few days after Hurricaine Katrina hit New Orleans. Nalbandian had been a strong fixture on the Fresno music scene for some time (as of this writing he's 29-years old), and was about to start his second season at the Fresno Art Museum when he pre-empted his season's first concert by 3 weeks to put on a benefit concert for the victims of Katrina. This concert happened on September 8th , days and weeks before the rest of the country assembled their benefits and TV charities. Nalbandian assembled a huge cast of musicians from Kevin Hill, Patrick Contreras, Carmenchristina Moreno, Mike Dana, David Aus and dozens more to pay tribute to the city and raise money from the Red Cross and United Way or New Orleans. This was the first time I saw him in concert. For those who haven's seen Armen Nalbandian, he stands over six feet tall, with very short hair, usually adorned in a suit, often pensive looking, exceptionally polite, and speaks with an unplaceable drawl, that seems equal parts east coast and southeren.
Nalbandian raised thousands of dollars in aid that night, but that was not his first benefit concert. That previous May, Nalbandian hosted a Mother's Day Concert and dontaed all of the proceeds to Breast Cancer Research and The Relay for Life Foundation. Since the Katrina Concert, Nalbandian has raised money for organizations as diverse as The United Way, The Red Cross, the ONE Campaign, Habitat for Humanity, The American Cancer Society and more. In addition to donating these funds to various charities, he also visits schools and retirement communities.
Not the average musican I must say.
I suppose in reading the above one would assume that with all the time Nalbandian spends on charity work, his music may suffer. Based on my research, Nalbandian leads 14 (yes, 14) groups, writes original bodies of music for the Rhythms of Art program (all the music is inspired by the art), has written music as diverse as jazz trio music to a string quartet to his own version of Armenian, Japanese, and Mexican music and so much more. In a recent interview with Nalbandian on The Fresno Beehive Podcast, Nalbandian admitted to having finished 9 recordings of original material, all with different groups that he leads. On top of that, being a crazy man, he has his own label, Blacksmith Brother Music, and plans to release them all this fall.
So one would expect a man with his hand in so many pots to have a huge ego, or even a maniac. Well, quite the contrary. Granted it took me about 2 months to get an interview with him, I decided to press him harder when I found out that he was returning for a fourth and final season at the Fresno Art Museum. I needed to find out more.
I met Armen at a coffee house on a Sunday evening. The infamous suit was nowhere to be seen nor was the closely chopped hair. He arrived wearing baggy jeans, Addidas and a T-shirt, with a LA Dodgers baseball cap on, and a beard beginning to grow in.
This is an excerpt from our conversation:
Q. I decided to focus this article on your charity work instead of focusing on the music, is that ok?
A. Yeah, that's fine. I'm not really sure there is a big scoop there though.
Q. Well, when I starting writing out all that you had done, it seemed unbelievable that one man could do so much.
A.It's not that much really. There is just so much more we can do that we can all do.
Q.Do you wish more musicians would be as charitable as you?
A.Oh, man. That seems like a loaded question. Honestly, I don't think most people know or care what charitable type stuff other people are doing. I'm sure that there are lots of musicians that are doing so much great work for their community. For instance, the organization Food Not Bombs, man that's such a great organization. Man, there's just a lot of things everyone's trying to do something. And you know not everyone needs to spearhead a movement, the world just needs people to be forward thinking and decent to each other.
Q. You have repeatedly returned to New Orleans in your charity work. Why do you keep coming back to that?
A. Are you serious? Man, there's just not enough being done. That area has been so neglected, these beautiful people of the world treated so inuhamely, it just really f*cked up. Can you imagine a government treating their own citizens that poorly? Its unfathomable. You know, this big hoopla is always made about Fidel Castro and his negative Communist thing, but even a so called enemy of the American people offered more help than our government. It just depressing. It makes me sad.
Q. So you're returning for a fourth year?
Q. And final year?
A. Yes. It's looking that way. It most likely will be.
Q. Done with Fresno?
A. No, not at all. I like Fresno. I like the people, I like all that this city has, other than summer weather I guess. But no, I'm not sure what happens after July 2008 just yet, I have a few ideas, but nothing concrete.
Q. You know you seem to get a lot of press for a Jazz musician from Fresno, does that ever seem surprising to you?
A. Yes, of course. I'm always flattered, and optimistic about the intent of what's being written, but man there are so many great musicians in Fresno.
Q. Such as?
A. You want me to make a list? (laughs)
I really don't want to because I will leave someone out but I can tell you that there is a drummer that I have the pleasure of working with often named Brian Hamada, who is absolutely brilliant. I really feel fortunate everytime I play or even speak with him. He is a master musican, not only for Central California but anywhere. Kevin Hill, of course, is wonderful. Eva Scow is a really special talent, I am so happy for all of her success. Tommy Delgado is brilliant. David Aus is a wonderful pianist. Jeanette Harris and her brother Mike are great musicians who seem to be enjoying a great deal of success which they no doubt deserve. Mike Dana is a great, great musician and great guy. John Laffenburger is a great musician who I don't really ever play with, but he's really pretty wonderful. You know who else? Joe Lewis! He's something really special and a good man. We used to work together a lot, but haven't in some time. He is a really great player and composer. I think I need to stop right there because I am forgetting names and that would be a disservice to so many great musicians. I mean I didn't even list the non-Jazz type players, like Julia Dawn or Kat Jones that used to live here. DJ 4AM is amazing, and the drummer that plays with 40 Watt Hype, Sean Aldrette, he is an incredible drummer, always has been.
Q. You make it seem like Fresno is a hot bed of musical talent!
A. It is in many ways, obviously overlooked because eveyrone seems to always bitch about how Fresno is so lame not true. Fresno has lots of great talent, not only in music, but in the visual arts, theater, and so on. It would be really cool if there were more venues that featured all this great music and art, but there's always hope right?
Q. Every other interview I read about you talks about all the music stuff you have coming up, will there be more charity events?
A. Um yes, sure. Every concert this season, there will be six this year, will serve to generate funds for various organizations. I'm still working out which ones, but yes, more community work than before.
Q.And is it true that you have been recognized by some of these charities for your community contribution?
A. Yes, but I don't want to talk about that. That's not the reason that I do it.
Q. Fair enough. Let's end with this question What's coming up next musicially for you?
A. More work with the trio, a few new groups I'm working on, and a few special guests joining me on as I close out my time at the museum.
Q. Thanks for speaking with me Armen.
A. My pleasure. Thank you for your interest.