BY MANUK AVEDIKYAN
Some say, when there is a lead you must follow. Raffi Joe Wartanian took the lead by making his second studio album “Critical Distance,” six years after his debut “Pushkin Street.” His freshman solo-album was a high-energy approach to rock and blues, as well as other influences. After moving away from his hometown of Baltimore to Yerevan, to New York and then to Los Angeles – where the album was recorded – Wartanian has taken a starkly different and more mature path of expression in his music, trying to mend those critical distances between each memorable residency.
Despite the challenges of moving, Wartanian actively continued writing music, providing a practical outlet for his experiences. Those outlets are reflected in his compositions and the various instruments of his choice. Wartanian, who plays guitar, mandolin, and oud, has written 10 compositions that are very much that, compositions, almost as if they were classical pieces. Accompanied by double bass and percussion, offering support and layers in lifting Wartanian’s dominant rhythms, melodies, and movements; the real leader here is no doubt the composer and his guitar.
The overall aura of the entire album is meditative and adventurous, entering some of the musically diverse terrains a modern guitar player is exposed to. What consistently surprises you about the album is its frequent genre-bending and its seamless weaving of them back into the fold.
The track “Escape” begins with a passionate guitar that transports you to the Iberian and Occitan Mediterranean coast. The guitar eventually indulges in a web of chords, and from there smoothly emerges a strong burst of a familiar Armenian theme giving a new foundation to the song. While the odd-timed motif revisits and expands further, the guitar moves and concludes by seamlessly blending the guitar styles of jazz and classical music.
Much of the album contains this exchange and flow, this move between one world and another. Wartanian and his guitar leads listeners on a journey to show what he’s found in himself. “El Molina Viejo” is one of those tracks, along with the strong “Departure,” where Latin rhythms and jazz guitar come together to put a smile on your face. In “Departure,” the darkness and dread of departing eventually consume you; however, hope prevails with a concluding bright chord. The journey feels all too similar to the track’s title and illustrates the nostalgic anxiety that distance and separation creates.
Wartanian especially emphasizes the blend of genres into his compositions, like on the opening track “Appalachatolia,” where classical guitar bridges its compounded namesake, the soul of Appalachian bluegrass and the shared urban cultures of Anatolia. While he primarily blends genres musically, he also attempts to do it sonically like on the second track aptly named “Blues in O.” The opening rhythm takes hold for most of the song and exemplifies the soul of the American south while being played on the oud – the Middle East’s foremost lute instrument. The depth of the oud serves the blues genre well; however, this is among those compositions where you are left wanting more – bass, layers and amplification – but you’re reminded by its rawness that it’s an acoustic solo album.
As previously mentioned, the compositions lead you to where the artist wants, albeit democratically, never by force but with compelling musical slogans and messages. The overall aura of the album is meditative. I could listen and relax, but due to Wartanian’s dominant instrumentation, I still go, “Damn, that’s great guitar playing.” To use the words of renowned master Oudist and composer, Ara Dinkjian, “Raffi Wartanian is a musician with a unique, personal vision. He has taken standard instruments, such as guitar and oud, and has approached them in a fresh, new way. His compositions tell his story. This, indeed, is what our musical world needs.”
“Critical Distance” is a sophisticated solo album revealing something I had never thought of or considered before – the fusing together of classical and modern compositions while cleverly incorporating genres like blues, jazz, latin, bluegrass, the Middle East, flamenco, and even a little rock. The end product is akin to a truly eclectic modern classical guitar playing style. Much time and thought was clearly put into these pieces. With that being said, it makes sense that a first generation Armenian-American would have created so many bridges between so many cultures.
“Critical Distance” by Raffi Joe Wartanian is now publically available on all digital streaming sites (Spotify, Bandcamp, Amazon Music, Apple Music, CD Baby, GooglePlay, Soundcloud, YouTube, and the Yerker App).