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Fabian Almazan: Alcanza

Troy Dostert By

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When his debut record, Personalities, was released in 2011, pianist Fabian Almazan put everyone on notice: this was a musician unafraid to take some big chances with his craft. That album began with a piece by Shostakovich (augmented with a string quartet and electronics, no less), and it effectively established the trajectory Almazan has continued ever since, in which classical, Latin, and post-bop jazz-based musical languages fuse together in ways that are consistently startling and path-breaking. Although he's proven himself a more-than-capable sideman in all sorts of contexts, not the least of which has involved holding down the piano duties for Terence Blanchard's band since 2007, his personal vision for his own projects has always been bold and ambitious—fearless, really, when it comes to transcending genres.

After Personalities, Almazan released his sophomore record Rhizome in 2014, and like its predecessor it included a string quartet to help realize his complex and engaging compositions. The new addition for that record was vocalist/guitarist Camila Meza, who has become a core component of Almazan's ensemble, along with bassist Linda May Han Oh, drummer Henry Cole and the string quartet including Megan Gould and Tomoko Omura on violin, Karen Waltuch on viola, and Noah Hoffeld on cello. With this now-seasoned lineup in place for Almazan's current record, Alcanza, the stage was set for something extraordinary. And to be sure, it is an absolute triumph.

In keeping with Almazan's huge vision, it is a conceptual album, an hour-long, nine-movement suite that explores questions of self-discovery, identity, and human beings' place in a complex and sometimes forbidding universe. Meza's pristine vocals give life to Almazan's thought-provoking lyrics, and although she sings exclusively in Spanish, the beauty and grandeur of the music are more than enough to transcend linguistic boundaries—a feature that characterizes Almazan's entire body of work, as his music so thoroughly defies categorization and classification.

The two most striking qualities of the suite are its energy and its emotional potency. From the opening measures of the suite's opening, "Vida Absurda y Bella," one is swept up in the infectious synergy of the music's rhythm and momentum. Propelled by the percussive power of Almazan's piano, Oh's nimble bass lines, and Cole's fluid polyrhythms, the music charges forward, and the strings are absolutely essential to the process. Far from being used as mere ornamentation, they are integral to the progression of the suite, sometimes in stating the melodic themes (as on the sublime chamber movement, "Verla"), at others in offering charged counterpoint or dissonance to accentuate the music's piquancy. There is a restless, yearning quality to the music that is riveting: even during its quieter, more somber moments, one senses the life that is pulsing beneath, waiting to emerge with a burst of creative power.

And as for the emotional vitality of the record: it is simply breathtaking. Whether through the poignancy of "Mas," with Meza's soaring vocals transporting the listener through a meditation on life's mysterious purpose, or the majestic lyricism of "Pater Familias," dedicated to Almazan's father, the scope of feeling and passion encompassed by this music is remarkable. And although the musical themes often possess a deceptively simple, folk-like aspect, the music is emphatically not simplistic: the emotional sweep of each movement is enhanced by its rhythmic complexity. Listening to Almazan's propulsive flourishes alongside Cole's dazzling multi-rhythmic technique and Oh's dynamic surges makes the melodic arc of "Pater Familias" all the more compelling and emotionally resonant.

In discussing the record, Almazan said his intention was to "engulf the listener, to completely take them to another place." With an album this powerful, this uncompromisingly creative, he has certainly done that. This is music that demands to be heard and experienced.

Track Listing: I. Vida Absurda y Bella; II. Marea Baja; III. Verla; La Voz de un Piano; IV. Mas; V. Tribu T9; La Voz de un Bajo; VI. Cazador Antiguo; La Voz de la Percusión; VII. Pater Familias; VIII. Este Lugar; IX. Marea Alta.

Personnel: Fabian Almazan: piano, electronics; Camila Meza: voice and guitar; Linda Oh: bass; Henry Cole: drums; Megan Gould: violin I; Tomoko Omura: violin II; Karen Waltuch: viola; Noah Hoffeld: cello.

Title: Alcanza | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Biophilia Records

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