Fabian Almazan: Multilayered Vision

Angelo Leonardi By

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For much of the past decade, Cuban-born pianist Fabian Almazan spent most of his time playing with Terence Blanchard who called him: "One of the great, young, new talent of his generation." Now 39 and based in New York City, Fabian earned his bachelor's and master's degrees from the Manhattan School of Music and was voted "#1 Rising Piano Star" by the Downbeat Critics' Poll in 2014.

Currently pianist in the Mark Guiliana quartet, Almazan is the owner and founder of Biophilia Records. His last CD, Alcanza, has received critics' awards for the rich and adventurous synthesis of Latin melodies, classical influences and Afro-american roots.

All About Jazz: For a few years you led a group with Linda May Han Oh, Camila Meza, Henry Cole and a string quartet. You recorded two celebrated albums, Rhizome and Alcanza. Tell us about this group.

Fabian Almazan: I am of the opinion that little by little, the cultures of the world are amalgamating into an all-encompassing single one. Similarly, the music of Rhizome aims to amalgamate musical diversity by embracing of the "coming-togetherness" of the peoples of the world. I am proud to call myself a jazz musician and our group Rhizome is rooted strongly in the jazz and classical music traditions, but we don't categorize the music we perform as any specific genre. Our goal is to provide all people with a universal "escape..." a means to let the music transport them to a place where all of our emotions can flow freely. The botanical term, "rhizome," among other things, refers to the root-like underground systems of some plants that connect whole forests together. I found the term apt to describe the embracing of togetherness that I aim for with music.

AAJ: How did you choose your partners?

FA: I met my partner Linda May Han Oh at Manhattan School of Music and was very quickly impressed by both her artistic and musical openness as well as her devotion to constantly growing as a musician. We had a handful of classes together and she was always the one who would bring in these very intricate compositions while the rest of us were struggling to merely meet the deadline. She was and is a constant source of inspiration for me.

I met Henry Cole at Manhattan School of Music when he briefly attended and he had the same qualities: a palpable appreciation for the art form, an open-mindedness to serve the music however it is in the moment, and a relentless work ethic to improve at his instrument every single day.

Camila Meza was the last addition to the ensemble and I met her almost by coincidence. I was invited to a show in Queens, NY by a friend and without knowing who was performing, I agreed to go. When I walked in the club, it was Camila singing and playing guitar and I immediately knew that I wanted to work with her. Prior to Camila, I wasn't really considering writing songs with lyrics. I feel that she really understands what my goals are with songwriting and is able to perform the music in a very natural manner.

The string quartet members I met while recording in New York. I kept asking for recommendations and eventually met Megan Gould, a wonderful human being and violinist who then introduced me to cellist Noah Hoffeld and violist Karen Waltuch. The final piece of the puzzle was violinist Tomoko Omura who I met through Camila. I feel extremely fortunate to have met all of these musicians. They are not only some of the best in their instruments in the world, but also lovely human beings.

AAJ: Can you describe the influences of classical music on your compositional perspective?

FA: As a teenager, I was more on the classical piano path than jazz. I was learning Beethoven, Prokofiev, Chopin and Bach but then I had an accident when I was fifteen. I fell on my wrist and had to have surgery to repair torn ligaments. I spent approximately six months without being able to play with my right hand, so my teacher at the time suggested that I listen to the Ravel left hand piano concerto. I bought an album of Ravel's piano and orchestral works and was instantly enamored with his music.

In addition to the left hand piano concerto, the album I purchased also had Ravel's orchestral arrangements of his piano suites and the G Major piano concerto. This is, in my opinion, some of the most beautiful music I have ever heard. Falling in love with Ravel's music led me to other composers like Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Brahms, ect...

Beyond listening to classical music on my own, I was extremely inspired to pursue actually composing and performing music with string players after being the pianist on several of Terence Blanchard's film scores with Spike Lee and George Lucas. Being the pianist in these huge studio orchestras was life-changing for me.

AAJ: Tell us about the start of your musical life, as a kid growing up.

FA: My dad was a classical upright and electric bassist so I heard a lot of classical bass repertoire as well as Jaco Pastorius with Weather Report growing up in Havana, Cuba where I was born. In addition to that, there was rumba being played in almost every corner of Havana, so I heard all of that constantly. I also grew up a couple of blocks away from the Zoo so I would hear the lions roar from time to time which is unlike any sound I have ever heard before-it really puts you in your place. Maybe that had some sort of influence in my music as well, who knows?

I also have an older sister—four and half years-and anything she did, I wanted to do because she was the biggest thing in my life. One of the things she did was take piano lessons and soon thereafter, I wanted to take lessons too. Long story short, my sister is now a veterinarian, but I was hooked on the piano. From the very beginning -I was five years old when I started taking lessons-I always understood that music was a magical and incredibly deep process. From the threshold of my relationship with playing the piano, I had a deep sense of discipline, gratitude and love for the opportunity to play music. It was not easy at all. Many times I grew frustrated with my inability to be able to play something, but I understand now that with time, I can grow and improve. And although I might not be able to do everything on the piano that I think I should be able to do, I am lucky to have music in my life.

AAJ: How did the music scene you grew up with in Havana affect your artistic life?

FA: The Cuban culture is so interwoven with music that it is difficult to be able to tell where the culture ends and the music starts. So many of the masters of Cuban music don't even really consider themselves musicians... they are just people that grew up in a poor neighborhood that have been getting together in parties since they were children and have been rumberos their whole lives. That is one end of the spectrum. On the other side, you have the ties with the Soviet Union which came to the conservatories in Cuba and shared their strict, almost army-like approach to classical music. That is a very austere side of Cuba that people don't often focus on. Beyond that, you have la nueva trova and Cuban rockers like Carlos Varela. Which is all to say that although Cuba may be a relatively small country, it has a very wide range of music. The most inspiring thing to me about being Cuban is that I can be whoever I want to be. I can take from all of these influences and make them be who I am. I am very fortunate to have been exposed to such diversity from such an early age.

AAJ: What do you think would have happened if you'd stayed in Cuba?

FA: It's difficult for me to answer this question. In the mid-nineties, Cuba was a very difficult place to call home after the collapse of the Soviet Union. My parents wanted my sister and I to have a chance, to have a bright future and at the time it seemed like that was not an attainable goal in Cuba. Some things have evolved in Cuba since that time but there are a lot of problems as far as human rights that must be properly and fairly addressed if our people are to have a fair chance.

AAJ: You studied three years with Conchita Betancourt and, years after, at New England Conservatory with Kenny Barron. What did you learn from these masters?

FA: I actually never studied at the New England Conservatory, it was at Manhattan School of Music where I studied with not just Kenny Barron, but also Garry Dial and Jason Moran. I owe my career to Conchita Betancourt. Having arrived in the U.S. with no money, my parents could not afford to pay for my piano lessons so Conchita taught me for free for three whole years because she believed in me. Having someone have that much faith in you is a very humbling experience. Even if I didn't believe in my abilities at times, knowing that Conchita did believe in me forced me to reach a level of courage that I don't think I would have had without her. She taught me to always play with everything I have, every single time, because music can save lives. She taught me a stoic quality to being an artist on a human level that I feel extremely fortunate to have experienced. I owe everything to her.

AAJ: You studied composition with Giampaolo Bracali. What was the experience like?

FA: Mr. Bracali was a very blunt, old Italian man. He did not hold back when he thought I had presented him with music that was not well written or well arranged. He would simple say: "That's wrong, that's wrong and that's wrong. Fix it." He would say why it was wrong and I would go home, do some research and come back the next week with a better version. And then he would say "being an artist is like being a mountain climber... are you going to climb one mountain and just stay up there? Or are you going to go back down the mountain so that you can then climb one hundred more?" He would also say that my job as a composer was not to write good music. He said there is no such thing as good music, everyone perceives music differently. What makes a good composer is his/her ability to present the musicians performing his/her music with a clear, professional part/score so that there is no ambiguity as to how the music should be performed. He said my job was to write down clear musical instructions. I feel like that made a lasting impression on me and I always make sure that the music I write is clearly and professionally produced. This has made it possible for me to travel the world and perform my music with various guest string quartets.

AAJ: Your writing is complex and modern but you are not afraid to write and play music with a sweet melodic appeal. Does that reflect your priorities as an artist?

FA: If the feeling I want to musically portray is one of vulnerability or tenderness, I will absolutely put my ego aside and make it possible for the music to take the character of what I am feeling. I am more concerned with the authenticity of the emotion felt from the music than its legitimacy among my peers. I, of course hope to have my peers' admiration, but in the end, my job as an artist is to be honest, not trying to be someone I know I am not.

AAJ: Do you think all jazz pianists should study classical music -and classical technique-alongside jazz?

FA: Not necessarily. If a pianist likes classical music, then they should play classical music. But if it's not something that makes them happy, I don't see any reason why they should do it. One argument that you hear quite often siding with the notion that jazz pianists should play classical music is that it is the only way of ensuring that as a pianist, you have proper technique. In my opinion, the study of proper technique is only relevant in as far as what the style of the music the musician seeks to play is. Every pianist can find a way to improve his/her technique so that it works for whatever style they perform. For me, I happen to love classical music and the way it makes me feel, and for that reason, I gravitate towards practicing it and listening to it. But that's just me. Everyone is entitled to be him/herself. Playing classical music for piano has certainly helped me but I know brilliant jazz pianists who sound incredible and have never really devoted much time to classical studies.

AAJ: When did you first connect with jazz?

FA: Since the first time I became aware of jazz, I think I have understood that improvisation is an art all onto itself. One of the defining moments for my choosing to focus my energy more on improvised music had to do with some of my peers when I was in New World School of the Arts High School in Miami. I was accepted as a classical pianist and would spend most afternoons staying after school to practice. One time, I left the practice room to get some water or go to the bathroom and overheard some of the jazz students playing music in another room. I couldn't help but to get closer to the room to hear the music clearer and opened the door slightly to get a look at them playing. When I opened that door, I saw people improvising and expressing themselves, in the moment and cooperating and communicating with music. As much as I loved classical music, it became clear to me that my path was one that allowed for a more personal, individual style of music, which was jazz. Jazz to me was a medicine-the blues was something that really resonated with me. Up to that point, the most important thing in my musical studies were to play a composers' music strictly, following his or her directions and not taking too many liberties with it. Jazz was therapeutic to me. I saw it as an invitation for me to be me more than anything and who wouldn't want that?

AAJ: What inspired you to start your label? Why did you choice the name Biophilia?

FA: Biophilia Records launched in 2011. I learned about the term Biophilia after reading the evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson's book Biophilia, in which he discusses the innate attraction of humans to other living systems. My goal with this label is not just to promote imaginative, meaningful music but also to spark conversation—and action—about the state of the environment. Jazz has long been a vehicle for promoting civil rights (John Coltrane's "Alabama" and Nina Simone's "Mississippi Goddam" for example) and environmental injustice is one of the most important civil rights issues of our time.

At its peak of perfection, music takes us on an internal, soul-nourishing trip. I want Biophilia Records to be the taking-off and landing points for these musical trips. Although the music itself may not necessarily not about the environment, the musicians making the music are environmentally minded.

Since I am a pianist and composer myself, I try to run the label from the artists' perspective. I do not get involved in the creative process of the artist unless I am asked to.

I believe that musicians are attracted to the label because they enjoy and respect the music that we have put out thus far and because they resonate with the environmental and sustainability-geared philosophy of the label.

AAJ: You also started a new medium for selling music, the Biopholio, an origami inspired cover with a unique code inside to download the music. How did you come up this idea?

FA: When the label first started, I wanted to make sure that we operated as environmentally responsible as possible. I am aware of the amount of plastic that is polluting our oceans and knew that manufacturing vinyl or CDs was not an option; I needed to find a way of creating some sort of product that appealed to fans accustomed to CDs but at the same time, did not harm the environment. That's when I came up with this new, all paper medium which we refer to as the Biopholio.

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