Latin Jazz Conversations: Fabian Almazan

by chipboaz on June 27, 2017

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Pianist and composer Fabian Almazan approaches music from an organic perspective, seamlessly bringing together a diverse background into a unique artistic vision. Studying classical piano as a child, Almazan developed some prodigious piano skills while growing up first ion Havana and then Miami. Although he was exposed to jazz through his father’s work as a bassist, Almazan didn’t connect with jazz until he was in high school; once he did though, the ability to be expressive through improvisation led to a deep dive into the genre. This passion for improvisation took him to The Manhattan School Of Music, where he once again expanding his artistic palette with a focus on orchestral composition. By the time that he completed his formal education, he was a musician with a broad skill set that earned him the piano chair with jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard, film scoring work for Spike Lee, and a high profile among a New York’s young generation of jazz musicians.

Almazan’s output as a leader has probably garnered the most attention though, as the pianist writes music that is rooted in symphonic textures, filled with jazz harmonies and improvisation, and arranged with a classical sensibility. On their self-titled album, his group Rhizome captured the imagination of jazz fans and critics alike with music both elegant and exciting that defied expectations. Almazan’s second recording with Rhizome, Alcanza, finds the group exploring a nine movement suite based on the idea of dealing with the unexpected. It’s beautiful and thought provoking music based upon reflection filled with intelligent composition and inspired performances.

Fresh off this new release, Almazan took some time to tell LJC a little bit about his background, approach to composition, and the music on Alcanza.

LATIN JAZZ CORNER: You studied classical piano extensively as a child, first in Havana and then in Miami – how did your connection to classical music and your teachers at the time provide a foundation for your work as a pianist?

FABIAN ALMAZAN: In answering this question, I realize that it’s an indication that it may have been my exposure to classical music that has led me to think about music in the way that I do. I tend to not focus so much on the genre of music as much as I do on how it makes me feel. The difference in genres I think is more cultural than anything. To me, at its core, music is sound intended to make human beings feel something. Jazz and classical music are branches of a tree that find nourishment in the same soil, water and sun.

To me, human emotion is wide and varied and as a composer I want to put these human emotions under the microscope and somehow transform them into sound. Sounds that are more typically associated with western classical music, like the string quartet, provide a palate for me as a composer that I find to be a fair representation of the abstract emotion I’m trying to convey musically. I guess that being exposed to a variety of musical traditions, classical music being one of them, led to me feeling that music doesn’t have to be this or that, it can be whatever it asks to be.

LJC: When did you find an interest in jazz and what were some of the early experiences that brought you deep into that musical world?

FA: First and foremost, I think I understood that improvisation is an art all onto itself because my father was a bassist in Cuba and listened to a lot of Weather Report. I was studying classical piano briefly there before we left but my father’s admiration towards musicians that improvised was the earliest memory I have of jazz.

One of the defining moments for my choosing to focus my energy more on improvised music than anything 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 spent 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 composer’s 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?

LJC: During your time at The Manhattan School Of Music, you immersed yourself in orchestral composition – what inspired you pursue this direction and what sort of different musical directions did this open for you?

FA: I’m fascinated by sound and I really didn’t think I would have an opportunity to gather 60 musicians in one room to hear orchestral music outside of school. So I completely embraced it and tried to experiment as much as I could with every opportunity I had to write something for the orchestra and hear it back. Some of the things I wrote seemed like 10 pieces crammed into 5 minutes. I just really didn’t think I would get that opportunity again any time soon.

LJC: You’ve been a part of trumpet player Terence Blanchard’s various groups since 2007, providing the opportunity to play jazz in a number of different contexts – how has this relationship helped you as a musician?

FA: The clearest advantage to playing with Terence has been the consistency of performing for audiences all over the world. There is nothing better than to have a chance to perform consistently for years. It has given me a chance to experiment and the room to find a voice and grow. Terence has always given the musicians in his band ample room to be ourselves and to take risks – I am extremely grateful for that.

LJC: You’ve also worked quite a bit scoring for film – how is writing for film different than writing for live performance?

FA: The story is the most important thing. Writing music for film is an ego-less job. As a composer, I am hired to help the story be told in its most.

LJC: Alcanza straddles the line between jazz improvisation and classical composition – how do you see the connection and differences between these worlds when composing?

FA: I’m just trying to portray sonically whatever the source of the inspiration is. I’m not thinking jazz, classical or improvisation, I’m just thinking, what paints the picture? Whatever that is, is what I try to bring forward so that it helps propel the music forward.

LJC: The inspiration behind Alcanza comes from the idea of finding our own path and dealing with the unexpected – tell us a little bit about the inspiration behind the music.

FA: My hope with this music is the same as it has always been: to try to help people. I simply want to provide listeners with an opportunity to open up their hearts and minds and feel something. The subtleties and intricacies of human emotion find their path through music.

The initial catalyst for the album came from an experience I had in Brazil during a tour with Terence Blanchard that went through Jericoacoara. Jericoacoara is an incredibly unique place, full of lagoons and sand dunes, in the eastern Brazilian state of Ceará. Although one might expect that a nature lover such as myself would have found inspiration from the lush tropical environment and all of its fascinating fauna and flora, it was actually the complete opposite.

For as long as I can remember, I have always viewed this planet as a living thing whose occupants need to be taken into account and treated with consideration and respect – all living things. This perspective still remains, but there was an experience I had one night in Jericoacoara that added a new dimension to my awareness of life and to the big questions dealing with the big “why” and the “how.”

The low tide was so extreme on that night that the shoreline had receded to what seemed like a mile to me. I had gone out that night by myself for what I thought would be a casual stroll beside the water at the beach but when I arrived, the water, to my surprise, was nowhere to be seen. I figured that it was just low tide so I started to walk out into the ocean until I’d reach the water. The walk turned longer and longer and pretty soon the lights from the hotels behind me became too distant so I resorted to the little light from my cell phone. I walked for what felt like 20 minutes until I finally reached the water. At this point, all of the sounds from the tourists were inaudible because I was so far away from where the town was. I stood there by myself, realizing how secluded I was and decided to turn off my cellphone light. All I heard was the sound of the waves crashing and felt the gusts of wind nudging me from side to side. It was complete darkness with only the starlight above and a very dim resemblance of civilization off in the distance. That was a very profound moment for me. One of the most profound I have ever experienced.

There was a great sense of insignificance. I felt almost no difference between myself and the grains of sand on which I was standing. As I looked up into the night sky I was hit by the immensity of the universe and the almost incomprehensible span of time that has unraveled, long before humans were anywhere near the picture. I found myself realizing that although I am a nature lover and that there is life on earth, there doesn’t necessarily need to be. We all exist on this planet, but the planet itself is not alive – it is a huge mass of stuff that is pulling other stuff into it because of gravity and somehow, different ingredients mixed at just the right time within it’s gravitational pull that resulted in what we call life. No real order or reason other than what we give it. In my mind, I concluded that it was both absurd and beautiful, the kind of realization that Albert Camus might have had some resonance with.

The strange part of it all is that it actually made me happy. Some might read what I have just described and feel a sense of anxiety, the need for clearer answers to the big questions in life and the need to have more control over an orderly way where we are at the center of it all. But for me, it felt like such a huge relief to stand there, and fully embrace the uncertainty of it all. Hence the first movement of the suite: “Vida Absurda y Bella” which translates to “Absurd and Beautiful Life.”

This in turn led to the next movement, “Marea Baja (Low Tide),” and the next, “Verla (Seeing Her),” with her being the truth (whatever that may be at the time).

These first three movements are completely a result of my experience in Jericoacoara. But as I proceeded to compose the middle portion of the suite, I began to “step back into dry land” sort of speak, and rather than remain in the philosophical realm, I began to deal with my life specifically. I began to try to musically portray the struggles of being a hispanic immigrant, specifically from childhood to adolescence. I began to look at my own experiences from my teenage years for guidance in the thematic material of the piece so it becomes almost biographical at this point.

The first of these biographical pieces is “Mas”, which is Spanish for the word “more.” “Mas” is a frustration song. It deals with being a young person and yearning for something more out of life. It is intended to represent that adolescent part of life when you experience a lot of things for the first time and have a difficult time accepting all of the contradictions and paradoxes that (most) adults later on in life come to accept. Although it is not explicitly portrayed in the lyrics, there is an undertow of wanting more out of life specifically as a non-white person living in the United States. Being told that you are a minority, when in fact, you are just as human as anybody else. When I was young, I didn’t understand why I felt these frustrations, but as the years go by, I come to understand the inequality present in this country and throughout the world when people are seen as “the other.” I really hope that there are hispanic and latino youngsters out there that hear this song and realize that they are not alone, and that there is no reason why they too shouldn’t want more out of life.

The next movement takes on a more playful character. It deals specifically with my time when I first arrived in New York when I was 19. I dedicate this movement to all of my peers. When I first moved to New York in 2003, the smartphone had not made its impact on society yet, and at the time, cellphones used something called T9 where each number button had 3 or 4 letters on it, and when you’d try to type out a message, the phone would try to guess what you were trying to write down. There were times when I would be out in the city, late at night with my peers, who were all just as enamored and stunned by the music scene in New York, where inevitably at some point, everyone’s heads would be tilted down and texting via T9 would ensue. This was what I thought of as the “T9 tribe”- a bunch of young kids playing music in New York that are now leading a world-wide movement in the evolution of jazz.

LJC: The music of Alcanza sits within the context of a multi-movement work – what musical opportunities does this larger structure open for you as a composer?

FA: I always intended for the music to be a continuous hour of music. I wanted to transport the listener to a different state of mind, and in order to maintain that atmosphere, I felt it was necessary to not break away from music at any point. In the same way that you attend an opera or a ballet and get completely transported into the world in front of you, that’s what I wanted to do. I also didn’t want to write music that became repetitive. I wanted the majority of the suite to be shifting constantly instead of settling into a groove for too long.

LJC: Jazz has long been a music that has been a reflection of the musicians that created it while classical composers have often written pieces independent of individual – as a composer, are you considering the musicians in your group Rhizome when you write or creating pieces that stand outside the realm of your group?

FA: Yes. I absolutely take into account the musicians that are in the band when I compose music for them.

LJC: Lyrics play a big part in the music on Alcanza and they are supported with lush textures and rich harmony – how do you approach writing for the voice in your unique musical context?

FA: I find writing lyrics almost more difficult than composing the music. I decided to write the lyrics in Spanish deliberately; “Alcanza” is Spanish for the word “Reach”. Latinos/Hispanics are being treated as “rapists” and “thugs” by the president of the United States right now. I hope that young Latino and Hispanic boys and girls view this album as an inspiration to aspire towards everything in life they want to. They should not have to think of themselves as anything other than equal to every single other human being in the world. They should aspire towards the same things as everybody else and not feel like they shouldn’t because of their race.

LJC: The orchestration and execution of ideas on Alcanza come from such a wide reaching range of musical genres and traditions – what people or musics influence you as a composer and a player?

FA: I very much enjoy the string writing of Ravel and Stravinsky. Jack DeJohnette, Jonny Greenwood, Coltrane, St. Vincent are strong influences.

LJC: Between your work as a sideman, your original work as a leader, and film scoring, you keep quite a busy schedule – what’s next for you musically?

FA: I went to Cuba in December of 2016 and recorded endemic bird sounds out in nature with a couple of biologists serving as guides in Las Terrazas, Guanahacabibes, and Los Viñales. I plan on using this audio to incorporate it into the next album which will embrace my Cuban heritage.

Check out recent Latin Jazz Corner articles:
Latin Jazz Conversations: Hiromi Suda
Latin Jazz Corner Podcast 006: Brent Fischer Interview (Part 1), Emilio Solla, Supporting Latin Jazz In 2017
Latin Jazz Conversations: Ben Sher
Latin Jazz Corner Podcast 004: Little Johnny Rivero Interview (Part 2), Curtis Brothers, 2017 Latin Jazz Grammy Awards

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