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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.

While recording a project featuring a rhythm section and a string quartet might sound daunting, Almazan saw it as a challenge to write clear and precise parts for his musicians. "It made it a requirement on my part that the music be as clear as possible [so] there's no confusion at all," Almazan describes.

"That's sort of the classical musician approach. Everything is written with absolutely clear instructions," continues Almazan who credits this technique of writing to the late Giampolo Bracali who Alamazan studied under while attending Manhattan School of Music. "I came to Manhattan School as a jazz student not really putting too many markings because I wanted it to be free and all that. But [Bracali] made it very clearly to me that this was not the way written music works. You have to absolutely put everything in there for the [musicians] otherwise your music is going to be unplayable."

Some of the musicians who played Almazan's precise charts for Rhizome were familiar faces can be heard on Personalities like Karen Waltuch, Noah Hoffeld, Linda Oh, and Henry Cole. New faces like violinists Sara Caswell and Tomoko Omura replace Meg Okura and Megan Gould who was pregnant during the recording date. Another addition on Rhizome is guitarist and vocalist Camila Meza who Almazan met during one of Meza's gigs. "I randomly ended up at her gig in Queens and it was one of the luckiest things that has every happened to me," Fabian Almazan remembers. "I spoke to [Meza] afterwards and we exchanged contact information and little by little I gout the courage to show her the song I had written at the time. I wrote it because I heard her sing and it just clicked. I realized, 'Oh, this is the song that I've been trying to write.' The lyrics just kind of came out and she was the last piece of the puzzle."

If Meza is the last piece of Almazan's newest album, then Rhizome is perhaps the last piece of Almazan's first album. While Personalities is definitely tour de force, taking the audience from a Shostakovich string quartet to the Antonio María Romeu's danzón, "Tres Lindas Cubanas," Rhizome offers an even more mature bandleader in Almazan. "Personalities was my first attempt of making my own album," the composer explains. "When I finished it I felt like, 'Oh, that's how you do that. That's how you record a string quartet, that's how you put together one piece of work.' I guess I felt like I had unfinished business and I really wanted to do a full album in the mode of a string quartet. I feel like the string quartet—for me personally— gives me a wide spectrum of emotion that I can put out there and that I feel very connected to."

"I definitely feel that there's a connection between the first album and the second," continues Almazan. "I think Rhizome is my attempt to fulfill my original idea with Personalities. I've just been trying to find my way and it's just the evolution of my first try. I guess it's just how the whole thing is evolving. I'm just taking it day by day and trying to find the direction I'm being pulled in."

Fabia Almazan's patient and steady approach to his career has landed him the opportunity to be the first artist to release an album for the newly minted joint label partnership between Blue Note and ArtistShare. The Blue Note/ArtistShare partnership was founded by ArtistShare founder and CEO Brian Camelio (read our November 2013 interview), Chairman Emertus of Blue Note, Bruce Lundvall, and President of Blue Note, Don Was, and is combining ArtistShare's crowd funding methods with Blue Note's legendary imprint.

"I'm really honored to be the first person that ArtistShare and Blue Note are trusting to do this whole thing," Almazan explains. "It's the first time that Blue Note and ArtistShare are working together and it's an honor for me to be a part of that." The sentiment goes both ways as Brian Camelio also had some nice things to say about Mr. Almazan, "Bruce Lundvall, Don Was, and I are very excited to have Fabian as our first Blue Note/ArtistShare artist. He's an excellent musician and composer representing the next generation of jazz masters."

Selected Discography
Fabian Almazan, Rhizome (Blue Note/ArtistShare, 2014)
Terrence Blanchard, Magnetic (Blue Note, 2013)
Nicky Schrire, Space And Time (Magenta Label, 2013
Terrence Blanchard, Red Tails Soundtrack (Sony, 2012)
Linda Oh, Initial Here (Green Leaf, 2012)
Fabian Almazan, Personalities (Biophilia, 2011)
Chris Dingman, Waking Dreams (Between Worlds, 2011)
Jake Saslow, Crosby Street (14th Street, 2011)
Suresh Singaratnam, Lost In New York (Suresong, 2010)
Terrence Blanchard, Choices (Concord, 2009).

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