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It’s mid-afternoon on the last day of May, and Fabian Almazan is settling into his room at a Detroit hotel, operating on two hours sleep after a gig at Smalls, in New York City, the night before with guitarist Mike Moreno. In two days, the 35-year-old pianist-keyboardist will play a concert of Terence Blanchard’s scores for Spike Lee’s films with Blanchard’s E-Collective, joined by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and two singers. Then he’ll fly from 80-degree Detroit to mid-winter Australia to join his wife, bassist Linda May Han Oh, for a visit with her family. When that concludes, the couple will fly to San Francisco, launching an eight-concerts-in-11-days cross-country tour by Almazan’s trio — with Oh and drummer Henry Cole — supporting This Land Abounds with Life, Almazan’s latest recording, released on his own label, Biophilia.
After returning from Smalls to the compact fourth-floor Harlem walkup where he and Oh reside, Almazan had packed until the wee hours for his imminent journey. “I took a big suitcase,” he says. Its contents include clothing for summer and winter, a small keyboard, the pedals he uses to modify whatever acoustic piano he is playing, and books of music for the trio alone and for a single date by Rhizome, the trio-melded-with-string-quartet ensemble he’s documented on Rhizome (2014) and Alcanza (2016), both on Biophilia.
Almazan’s logistical meticulousness facilitated the December 2016 expedition to Cuba’s east coast that generated most of This Land Abounds with Life. He funded it with a $20,000 Jerome Foundation grant mandating him “to collect audio samples and experience traditional, folkloric music from the region of his birth.” It was his first time on Cuban soil since his parents abruptly left their home in Havana’s Nuevo Vedado district in 1993.
“I was reconnecting with part of myself that was missing for so long,” Almazan says of the experience. “I have an American passport and a type of passport with the Cuban government. Whenever I go abroad I show the American passport — but this time, I showed my Cuban passport at check-in. When I got to the gate, I was in tears; because of politics, my family was divided for two decades.
“I always try to put these things aside when I get into the process of being the vehicle for music or art. I wanted to make sure that the message on this album isn’t specifically about my culture or the politics in Cuba, but also that I still was portraying who I am — a hybrid, like millions of people in the world. I wanted to embrace that. I think when you listen to the album, you don’t hear something that’s clearly American or clearly Cuban. It’s this mixture of both.”
By phone from Australia the previous evening, Oh described her husband’s painstaking preparations. “He researched every step, down to renting a car from a company in Spain to drive to the places he needed to go,” she said. “I was with him a few days, and I accompanied him to the house he’d lived in and met some of his family.”
“The preparation was for going into the jungle and the forest,” Almazan clarifies. Along for the ride were a field biologist and a cousin, well-known in Cuba as a soap opera actor. “I had to research the right microphones, the right field recorder and the right batteries. I had to fully research where I was going. I was often in the middle of nowhere, so I had to make sure I’d be safe and have a car that worked. For example, one place is a nature preserve, but also an Army base, and I’m walking around with microphones, recording things. That was tricky. I was trying not to be noticed.”
Almazan himself seems to have noticed everything. Novelistic in scope, communicative in intention, This Land Abounds with Life conveys the complex emotions stirred in unearthing roots, and also the intense sensual aura of Cuba’s flora and fauna. The feeling of dance is ever-present. Almazan presents the stories with an exhaustive range of well-assimilated vocabulary — Euro-Impressionism; jazz piano dialects spanning Willie “The Lion” Smith to Gonzalo Rubalcaba; Cuban folkloric idioms; location captures of birdsong and spoken word. He textures his lines with a capacious palette of harmonic colors and electronically modified timbres, molding the flow into asymmetrical shapes that respond to Cole’s ingenious beat formulations. Whether the pace is fleet or rubato, the dynamics forte or pianissimo, he projects an inner flame that belies his reserved, soft-spoken comportment.
“I think that the value of music, at its most basic core, is when the years I’ve dedicated to studying the craft and architecture kick in, so I can listen the same way 2-year-olds listen to people speaking and then somehow figure out how to speak themselves,” Almazan says. “That’s what I’m going after with jazz. As much as I’ve studied what makes it what it is, that means nothing unless I’m able to really connect to that emotional content.
“If it was a more peaceful time, I’d probably write music just for its own sake. But so many things require artists to consider them and provide people with a mirror so they can look at themselves. Whenever it becomes clear that the music I’m writing is about something, that’s when I have a bullseye to aim for. I may not be able to tell you exactly what that bullseye represents, but I know how it feels.”
[caption id="attachment_21325" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Fabian Almazan and his trio, including Linda May Han Oh (acoustic/electric bass) and Henry Cole (drums).[/caption]
“My role in the trio is to give Fabian comfort and foundation so he can explode when he plays,” says Cole. “He’s always pushing. He doesn’t think in terms of patterns, and never plays it safe. He doesn’t remind me of other piano players in the sense that you say, ‘OK, he took that lick from that guy.’ He has all the skills — the harmonic and technical chops — but the melodies are always there. All the songs are beautiful melodies. That makes it easier to memorize them because I can sing to them.”
One that matches Cole’s description is the album-opener, “Benjamin,” (named for the donkey in George Orwell’s Animal Farm), where the quicksilver, odd-metered refrain repeats over a shifting bass part, then, after a brief danzon interlude, reasserts itself. On “Folklorism,” Almazan renders a traditional melody “that you could hear somebody sing down the street in Cuba” and “relates it to me and my time” by playing an uneven pulse that “I try to make sound as smooth and round as possible.” “Songs of the Forgotten” begins with a field recording of the chichinguaco bird; Almazan follows its cadence and B-major tonality throughout the performance, concluding with a right-hand passage of rolled chords in the upper register.
Almazan’s fieldwork also gestated “The Poets,” which piggybacks off a roadside encounter with musician and poet El Macagüero de Pinar. “I was trying to write something in the spirit of punto, a traditional melody you’d probably hear if you go to the countryside, but harmonically more within the world I live in,” Almazan says.
Family is the subject of “Uncle Tio,” sparked by Almazan’s reunion with his paternal uncle, who died several months after they met. The three-part narrative opens with a jaunty piano passage evoking “the feelings of love that I now have as an uncle myself, and the feelings of love that I experienced from my uncle.” A drum solo, he says, denotes “the transition from my uncle to my nieces”; Oh’s bass solo, he adds, depicts the nieces; a stirring coda “reflects my responsibility as an uncle and a man to make sure that my five nieces don’t have to live in a world where they have to suffer as women not being taken seriously.”
An explicitly feminist perspective also informs “Ella,” on which constant key modulations represent the kaleidoscopic emotions evoked by the journey of a metaphorical female bird that, Almazan says, “leaves where it grew up, sees how things are in a different part of the world and understands that there is an injustice where she came from. “The role of men and women in society is complicated — not a black-and-white thing. It’s very sad, sometimes tragic, but there’s still love, there’s still beauty in the world.”
[caption id="attachment_21326" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Fabian Almazan: “I wanted to make sure that the message on this album isn’t specifically about my culture or the politics in Cuba, but also that I still was portraying who I am — a hybrid, like millions of people in the world.” Photo: Clara Pereira.[/caption]
Almazan studied classical music exclusively until ninth grade at Miami’s New World School of the Arts. He deploys that training on “Jaula” (inspired by a visit to Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum while on tour with Blanchard), as he creates variations on the melody with an authoritative left hand and comments with the right, “just to show how upside-down everything is.” The piano-solo section in “Nomads” refracts the second movement of Ravel’s G-Major Piano Concerto. Almazan also channels classical roots throughout “Everglades,” a Romantic epic that Blanchard included on the recent E-Collective album Live. The 11-minute trio version on This Land Abounds with Life depicts, as Almazan states in the program notes, various temperaments of the singular marshlands where he spent quality time throughout his teens, from “the ravaging strength of a lightning storm in the heat of July” to “the peaceful sunrise on a calm winter day.”
“It’s my first composition that clearly emanated from my love and appreciation for nature,” Almazan says. “I’ve always cared deeply about the environment, which affects all living forms, not just us humans — and the Everglades has been devastated by human intervention and climate change. It’s my responsibility as an artist to give a sound to what I consider precious and beautiful in the world, and express it that way.”
“Fabian has an amazing sense of creativity,” Blanchard says of the piece a week after the Detroit concert. “He’s not bound by a lot of things. He’s free. He’s also very conscious about what’s around him. This all plays a role in his life and in his music. Everything he does is musical. When he uses electronic tools to create different textures and colors, it’s done not for effect, but in an effort to create beautiful ideas.”
Blanchard’s acoustic quintet played the album’s penultimate and perhaps oldest piece, “Pet Steps Sitters Theme Song,” on-screen during the fourth season of Treme. Almazan composed it at his parents’ request to portray the animal-care business they founded in Miami in 2007. “They said they wanted it to be cute, puppies and kittens and stuff like that,” Almazan says. “I focused more on my parents’ tenacity and will to survive.”
Over the phone from Miami, Almazan’s mother, Griselde, discussed her son’s formative years. Herself a former ballet dancer, she speaks English with no discernible accent, a carryover from her former profession as a simultaneous translator for the Cuban government. His father, Rafael, was a classical bass player who doubled in Cuban dance bands as an electric bassist, which he taught in a well-known school that he co-founded with Carlos Del Puerto and Silvio Vergara. A Jaco Pastorius devotee, he played cassettes of Weather Report around their apartment, exposing Fabian to Wayne Shorter’s harmony, augmenting the rotation with albums by the Yellowjackets and Cannonball Adderley.
“Fabian would go to his older sister’s piano classes, and then would start playing everything she’d done on our piano,” Mrs. Almazan recalls. At 8, he was accepted at Havana’s Manuel Saumell Elementary Music School, whose alumni include Rubalcaba, Harold López-Nussa and Alfredo Rodriguez. His first teacher, Enrique Gonzalez, “taught him perfect technique, and everyone commented on how well he did for being so young.” Then the family abruptly left the island for Mexico.
“By then, rather than being told when we weren’t going to have electricity, we were told when we would have it,” Almazan explains. “That’s how often we had blackouts. We lived near a zoo, on the fourth floor, and something that sticks with me is sitting at the table by candlelight, trying to finish my homework, and hearing lions roar in the background. Somebody in the neighborhood actually snuck into the zoo and stole the ostrich, killed it and ate it. People were very hungry at that time.”
[caption id="attachment_21329" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Fabian Almazan: “It’s my responsibility as an artist to give a sound to what I consider precious and beautiful in the world, and express it that way.” Photo: Clara Pereira.[/caption]
In Mexico, Almazan studied with an Italian teacher, but piano lessons were put on hold when the Almazans settled in Miami in 1994. With starting from scratch their only option, they approached the American phase of their life with a can-do attitude that they passed along to their son.
“We’d go to a piano store where Fabian could exercise his hands by doing chords and arpeggios,” Mrs. Almazan says. A salesperson heard him, provided an in-store practice room where he could study several days a week, and found a teacher who offered the prodigy a weekly lesson gratis. “A few months later, she told us, ‘He’s too much for me. He needs a real teacher. He is going to go very far.’” The new teacher, Conchita Betancourt, gave Fabian free classes until he entered high school.
One day during Almazan’s freshman year, he heard a group of students — among them drummer Obed Calvaire, two years his elder — playing a jam session. “At that moment it clicked that obviously this is what I had to do,” Almazan says. “I saw these teenagers being able to express themselves. Not only that, they were listening to each other, cooperating, communicating. It wasn’t just an anarchy of music.”
During the following summer, Almazan fell and ripped tendons in his right hand. While recuperating, he learned Ravel’s Piano Concerto for Left Hand in D Major and participated in the school band and jazz combo as a one-handed pianist. Already he’d been performing some Cuban but mostly jazz gigs at various Miami-area restaurants and cafés, chauffeured by his mother, who was then working several jobs. During senior year, at his mother’s urging, he applied for the Grammy Band with a demo he’d recorded at the home studio of Arturo Sandoval, a family friend. He won the slot. The next year he earned a scholarship to the Dave Brubeck Institute Chair for Piano, to which she’d urged him to apply. Then came scholarships to Manhattan School of Music, where he earned a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree.
“I’m very grateful every day, and I don’t forget where I come from,” Almazan says, “Both my parents told me that if I love something and I’m driven by it, I shouldn’t give up. I’ve listened. They could easily have given up many times, but they’ve always chosen a path that, although it’s challenging, is the right path to take. They instilled in me a moral compass where I know in my gut when something is wrong.”
Still, Almazan says, “I don’t think anything makes any sense, and music should sometimes reflect that. Even if I’m not entirely happy with something I’ve produced, it might be perfect for somebody who hears it and needs it in their life at that moment. So I don’t pretend to understand music. It feels a certain way, and if it clicks, then that’s the way I’ll go.” - Ted Panken
Featured photo by Clara Pereira.