Fabian Almazan: Espejos

DanMichael Reyes By

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Intent is one of those intangible qualities that make a jazz musician. While traits like technical facility, memory, harmonic and rhythmic sophistication play a huge part in the career and development of the aspiring jazz artist, intention is the X-factor that can make a performance special. In an art form that demands spontaneity and thrives within improvisation, hearing what you're going to play before you play it—in some cases hearing it as you play—is crucial in order to get your message across.

Rhizome (Blue Note/ArtistShare, 2014) is Cuban-born, New York-based pianist and composer Fabian Almazan's newest project. Set to release this February, Almazan's newest album is a project with the intention to "unite all people from all walks of life and provide them with some inspiration to strive towards happiness." Almazan's sophomore album as a leader features original compositions by the pianist about topics ranging from the Arab Spring to the devastating shootings that took place here in the States last year.

"There were a lot of shootings that happened in the U.S that [occurred] around that time and I felt like it's just little old me," describes Almazan. "I'm just a pianist but I had hoped that standing up and saying [that] we're all one and we're all reflections of each other would help."

"At the time I just felt that it was necessary for me—for my own moral compass—to say something about making the world a better place," Almazan continues. "I know it sounds very kumbaya, but that's the whole idea for Rhizome."

Coming up with the album's name came to the pianist after reading a passage in a book by Carl Jung's Memories, Dreams, Reflections on life being analogous to a rhizome. "It kind of crystallized when I read [a] passage in Jung's book," Alamazan shares. "I travelled a lot for touring and had a lot of conversations with people about their lives and what they're going through. It just became clear to me that it doesn't matter where we're from, we're all experiencing very similar things in our lives and we're all undergoing certain challenges."

A challenge fit for our purposes is the slowly diminishing idea of apprenticeships and finishing schools in jazz. In previous years, a jazz musician would earn his/her stripes after serving as a sideman for a more experienced artist. While these sidemen were usually pretty bad musicians who were on the top of their game—Wayne Shorter's time with Art Blakey and Miles, Miles Davis with Charlie Parker, Bird with Jay McShann—local scenes thrived on a microcosmic level with older local musicians taking the younger generation in.

While finishing schools aren't as prevalent as they used to be, these opportunities still exist and Fabian Alamazan is an example. Since 2007, the young pianist has held the piano chair for trumpeter, Terence Blanchard. Almazan appears on Blanchard's latest record for Blue Note, Magnetic (2013), the soundtrack for the movie Red Tails (Sony, 2012), and Choices (Concord, 2009).

When asked about advice for striving musicians looking to land apprenticeships, the humble pianist said, "Listen to your gut. I think a lot of people know the majority of the answers that they're seeking, they're just afraid to face up to the reality of it."

"Usually, the reality of it requires an extreme amount of work and a lot of dedication," Almazan reveals. "I think if you really love what you're doing, and you have the courage to go forward [to] fulfill whatever destiny you want, things will line up. It's not easy by any means, it's the most difficult thing that any that [particular] person will probably have to do; it's just part of life. But that's what it entails, a lot of hard work. Just listen to your gut; if you feel like you have to do something to achieve whatever it is you want to achieve, just go for it."

Going for it is a trait and attitude that Almazan inhibits not just in his life as a jazz pianist, but as a film composer, and a record label owner. Biophilia Records is Almazan's own imprint where his first album, Personalities (2011), was released. Other artists that are part of Almazan's Biophilia umbrella are bassist and singer-songwriter Desmond White and vocalist Charlie Christenson.

"It's one of those things where I don't know what I don't know, so I don't know a lot," Almazan states in describing his role as a record label owner. But Biophilia isn't just Almazan's attempt to have his own imprint along with a few buddies in order to make music; the name Biophilia has a deeper meaning for Almazan. "The definition of that word is a love of life, but not as in living but a love for living things," explains the pianist. "I've always been very drawn to conservation efforts [with] nature. Growing up, I felt like I lived in two worlds. One was very committed to music, which is the art world, but I was also drawn to the state of the environment."

"I felt like there weren't really lot of people I had that in common with," Almazan continues. "Starting this record label is my attempt to unite people that are both extremely passionate about music and the environment. That's all I'm trying to do with that—I'm not trying to make any more, I'm just trying to make a community of people."

Almazan's go forth attitude doesn't just stop with Biophilia, it also extends to his recording process for his records. "Personalities was my first attempt of making my own album. I felt like when I finished it I was like, 'Oh, that's how you do that. That's how you record a string quartet and that's how you put together one piece of work," descrbies Almazan.

When it came down to recording a string quartet for his first album, Almazan along with bassist Linda May Han Oh, and drummer Henry Cole recorded their parts first as a trio then Almazan went back and recorded violinists Meg Okura and Megan Gould, Karen Waltuch on viola, and cellist Noah Hoffeld on top of the trio. This method of recording the piano trio first then the string quartet second allowed Almazan, Oh, and Cole the room for improvisation.

Although recording the piano trio first then the string quartet worked beautifully for Personalities, Almazan's busy schedule simply did not allow for such a luxury to occur when it came time to record Rhizome. "I looked at my calendar at the end of last year (2012) and I realized that the only time I was going to be able to record the CD was going to be in the beginning of March," Almazan reveals. Things were so hectic around that time that Almazan didn't even have the time for a full band rehearsal for the recording. "I was able to rehearse the strings and then the rhythm section but not like a full band," recalls the leader.
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