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Pianist's Keys to Happiness : David Azarian has the two things he dreamed of while growing up in Armenia: a home in the U. S. and jazz.

March 24, 1995|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Zan Stewart writes regularly about jazz for The Times.

STUDIO CITY — It doesn't sound like anything that remarkable: David Azarian resides in Boston and plays jazz. But for the pianist, those two facts amount to a dream come true.

When Azarian, 43, was growing up in Yerevan, Armenia, his country was part of the Soviet Union, and its citizens didn't move to the United States, didn't even express those desires. "I wanted to come and play here, learn, to live here," Azarian says. "But that was impossible in the former Soviet Union. It was even dangerous to have those dreams, because the (anti-West) influence of Russia was so strong."

That changed for Azarian in 1989 when he, along with 35 other Armenians, traveled from Yerevan, Armenia's capital, to its U. S. sister city, Cambridge, Mass. And though his stay was only supposed to be for 10 days, Azarian extended his visa for six months, and during that period made the arrangements to stay in this country legally. (He has not returned to Armenia, though he now would like to go back for a visit.)

"I basically defected," he says, speaking English excellently though with a noticeable accent during a phone interview from his manager's office in Boston. "I went to an American-Armenian lawyer who prepared the papers."

While initially in the United States, he made numerous appearances in Boston, Cambridge, Providence, R.I., and Atlantic City, N.J. Since then, he has performed steadily, mostly in the Boston area and in nearby Providence, but also in New York. He makes his Los Angeles debut, leading a fine quartet with drum master Bob Moses, up-and-coming sax man Rob Scheps and bassist Barry Smith, tonight through Sunday at La Ve Lee.

Azarian is an impressionistic performer who can offer moods that are steaming hot one moment, tempered and introspective the next. As critic Ken Franckling wrote of the pianist in Jazz Times magazine, "His playing is filled with crystal-clear melodicism, strong on texture and vivid imagery. He is never shy about borrowing from the classical idiom when the moment requires a Rachmaninoff-like run."

The classical aspects in Azarian's playing stem from his early training. He began extensive formal studies at age 7, culminating in degrees in piano and composition from the Gomidas Conservatory in Yerevan in 1975. But it's jazz that runs the deepest in the artist. He discovered the music soon after he started playing piano.

"A friend of mine gave me an LP of Horace Silver's trio for my birthday," says Azarian, referring to the jazz master pianist who emerged in the '50s. "While I liked it, I didn't understand it. But it was so attractive that I started learning two of the songs and a bit of the solos. To do this, I had to stop and start the LP over and over, and I wore those two tracks out," he says with a soft laugh.

*

That Silver album was illegal to own. Still, Azarian soon sought out additional contraband recordings by Oscar Peterson and Erroll Garner. Surprisingly, these albums were easily available from jazz-loving friends. "The people who were interested in jazz had the latest recordings, and so I would make tape copies," says Azarian.

The music led him to daydream about America. "I imagined a world which included the best of knowledge from books, TV, film and music," he says. "That illusion, which is always better than the truth, was so great that it was always in my mind to be here, to live my illusion."

Later, Azarian found himself drawn to American R & B, particularly the music of Stevie Wonder, who became his idol. Today, the pianist says he plays jazz that is flavored with "tension and soul, mixing a style that includes R & B and traditional jazz." His major jazz piano influence is Keith Jarrett.

At La Ve Lee, Azarian will mostly play original tunes whose themes are derived from his life. "Longing for My Son, Dennis" is a tender waltz written for his now-grown child from a first marriage who still lives in Armenia. "The Woman I Love," he says, is for his second wife, Vickie, an Armenian American whom he met while playing in Providence. "Hope" might have been written about his longing to live in America. "There are so many situations where you lose hope, and yet you keep on hoping," he says.

Azarian's life in Boston is comfortable. His wife is an architect, which helps stabilize the family income. The pianist earns his living by performing occasionally and teaching, mostly privately. He has one album out--"Stairway to Seventh Heaven," on Mobile Fidelity Records-- which was recorded while he was in Armenia. He longs for a release on a U. S. label.

Living and playing here has fulfilled one dream, but it has led to others for Azarian. "Now I want to make it as far as I can," he says. "I am always dreaming for something good. I want people to live in peace and love each other as brother and sisters. I'm dreaming that this world will become more meaningful."

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WHERE AND WHEN

Who: David Azarian's quartet.

Location: La Ve Lee, 12514 Ventura Blvd., Studio City.

Hours: 9:30 and 11:30 p.m. tonight and Saturday; 9 and 11 p.m. Sunday.

Price: Cover charge $15, two-drink minimum.

Call: (818) 980-8158.

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