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.
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