Track By Track: Fabian Almazan’s ‘This Land Abounds With Life’

Fabian Almazan has long harbored a connection to nature. Born in Cuba and raised in Miami, Florida, the 35-year-old pianist comes from a strong line of farmers, and a passion for conservation seems to run in his blood. “My father says I’m very similar to my grandfather, even down to his mannerisms,” said Almazan. “He apparently always had this empathy towards nature, whether it be human life or any other sort of life that occurs, and I seem to have developed it, too.”

That empathy for the natural world carries over into Almazan’s professional and musical life as well. As the founder of Biophilia Records, a label that specializes in modern jazz, he has recast the record-producing process in an eco-friendly mold. Rather than CDs, which can have costly effects on the environment, the label releases all of its music on Biopholios, double-sided, 20-panel origami-inspired packets that are bursting with vibrant artwork and liner notes. The label also encourages its artists to reduce their carbon footprint through volunteering with local environmental agencies. It’s all done with the intention of inspiring audiences with music and empowering future generations through action.

The Biopholio for This Land Abounds with Life, released June 14 on Biophilia Records.

The label’s catalog is vast and well regarded, with a roster teeming with young jazz innovators like bassist Linda May Han Oh and trumpeter Adam O’Farrill. Almazan himself is a mainstay of the label’s lineup, having released three critically revered projects under the Biophilia banner. The first two, Personalities (2012) and Alcanza (2017), helped cement his stature as one of today’s most versatile pianists; it also helped catapult him to the top of the Rising Star – Piano category in the 2014 DownBeat Critics Poll. His latest project, This Land Abounds With Life, was released June 14 and features his trio with bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Henry Cole. It’s quite possibly his most personal album to date, involving a journey both inward and outward.

The impetus for the project was an opportunity in 2016 to travel to Cuba, his first trip to the island in 23 years. While there, he visited family and spent time out in nature, interviewing local musicians and farmers and recording birdsongs in the wild. After returning to his home in Harlem, Almazan said he began to compose pieces with a sense of urgency, spurred on by the growing threat of global warming and other forms of detrimental climate change. His purpose with the album was to translate that sense of urgency into a sensation his listeners would understand. “My job as an artist is to create situations for people where they can experience abstract feelings that they wouldn’t otherwise have an outlet for,” he said. “I’m letting my aesthetic, as well as my moral compass, guide me in this journey, and I hope I’m doing the right thing.”

We asked Almazan to walk us through the new album track by track. His responses were illuminating. Though the songs stand on their own musical merits, knowing what went into the making of each track adds a profound sense of depth and meaning. Listen below and read along.

“Benjamin”

This is all about a sense of urgency. Benjamin is the donkey in Animal Farm, the novel, and Benjamin is the one that is able to get all the animals to rally behind him, because he feels injustice has been done. He’s a reminder to people to think for themselves, to not lose sight of how many people have given their lives throughout history so that we can have access to education and make our own educated choices.

“The Everglades Suite”

The Everglades is a very special place to me because I grew up so close to it, and that’s kind of where I realized how much I cared about the environment. A lot of my peers just didn’t seem to have that same sort of reaction to the things that were happening that were endangering the balance of life in the Everglades. I tried to write a piece that was a portrait of the Everglades as a place unto itself.

On the one hand, you have these massive storms that happen there, the hurricanes that pass through. Obviously all of the competition that’s going on for food and all sorts of things. But when it’s a peaceful, clear day, it’s just one of the most tranquil places that you could go. So I was just trying to portray all of those in the same way that an impressionistic painter would try to portray that.

“The Poets”

In the Cuban countryside, there’s a style of music called musica campesina. And within that, there is a tradition called “punto.” Punto has different meanings, but basically, it’s the sort of pattern that the guitars play. I’ve always been fascinated by it because, even though there are musicians that are singing and playing this music, they consider themselves poets rather than musicians, because there’s such an emphasis on the poetry, and they improvise the poetry a lot of the times.

Actually, there’s one style that’s called pie forzado, which means a forced foot. In which there’ll be an open jam session outside, and the whole town is surrounding musicians and poets. And so somebody from the audience will yell out a line and it’s the job of the poet to start singing a 10-line poem on the spot, with the final line being the one that the audience member yelled. Most of the time that poetry is about where they live and being in tune with nature, planting the seeds and the harvest and all those things. It’s a really beautiful tradition that happened in Cuba that I don’t think a lot of Americans are aware of.

The recording in the very beginning of the track is from a musician that we saw on the side of the road. And I actually stopped him and told him the final line, and he improvised exactly like I’m describing.

“Ella”

Ella is the Spanish word for her.  The piece was a commission for the Jazz Gallery. There are lyrics to it; Camila Mesa sang it when we premiered the tune a couple of years ago, and it’s basically about women and how difficult of a journey it’s been for them to get closer and closer to equality and equity.

“Songs of the Forgotten”

This one has a few layers. The actual songs that I’m referring to are those of the birds that you hear, the field recording from the beginning of the track and at the end of the track and at some point in the middle. We forget about other living things and we have to try to do our best not to. The other layer of it has to do with civilians that live in places where, because of greed and thirst for political power, people suffer. Obviously, this is going on in Cuba, but it’s also happening in a lot of places on earth. Cuba just happens to be where I’m from.

Members of the Fabian Almazan Trio: Linda May Han Oh (left), Almazan and Henry Cole. (Photo: Courtesy the artist)

“Nomad”

I wanted to have that vibrancy of the Caribbean on this album, but with my twist on it. For this song, I wanted the emphasis to be on the drums, and to have this driving pulse to it, just to portray the fact that, as I remember Cuba from when I was a child and when I went back,  there are a lot of hungry people and things aren’t easy, but there’s somehow still this energy. You still see a lot of smiles. You see a lot of people finding a way of being happy with each other’s company and finding a way of enjoying life.

“Jaula”

This one’s about Nelson Mandela. I tried to pursue the personification of a caged bird, because “jaula” means cage in Spanish. When I went to Johannesburg a couple of years ago, playing with Terence Blanchard, we got to go to the Apartheid Museum,  and that was a deeply moving experience. What ties the song together with the rest of the album is just that theme of thinking for yourself, being able to call out wrongs. And that’s what Nelson Mandela’s stood for. He really wanted everybody to coexist. There had been different people that have had different approaches in situations where racism has been present, but I really liked his, which was that we’re all in this together, as people.

“Bola De Nieve”

This piece was actually composed by someone else, Carlos Varela, which is a Cuban rocker. So it’s my arrangement, to his piece, which is an homage to the Cuban composer Ignacio Jacinto Villa Fernández, known as Bola De Nieve.

I had the cassette of Carlos Varela’s song as a kid. My parents used to play it all the time. It was either that or Weather Report. Those were the first two things I ever heard. The tune itself was on our first album, but since then I wrote a string quartet arrangement to it and I just felt like this was the right album to put that out on, just because of the Cuban connection.

As for Bola De Nieve himself, he was kind of like the Cuban version of Satchmo, which is very beloved.

“Folklorism”

Folklore in Cuba is very much alive and strong, and there are a lot of musicians coming from the classical tradition, applying that sort of thing to folk music. There’s so much of that history in Cuba, and as a musician, it’s really easy to listen to music and completely break it down and analyze it, rather than just feel it. And for me, there’s something about folk music where I am able to turn off that analytical side of my brain and just listen because it feels good.

Folk music that was in Cuba came as a result of the slave trade, and at first African descendants, they weren’t allowed to play their music for a very long time. It’s not until recent times that it’s been embraced by the Cuban government has a cultural gem.

“Uncle Tio”

It’s about the role of an uncle. When I was in Cuba, I got to see my uncle and it was very special, because I hadn’t seen him in a very long time. But he passed away about two months after that. I wanted to write something not only for him, but I’ve also become an uncle over the last couple of years. I went from not having any nieces or nephews to all of a sudden having five. And for my nieces, especially, I’m very thankful that they were born in this time in this era. Had it been even 50 years ago, there would’ve been a very different life that they would have lived as young girls. So yeah, it’s just, it’s also dedicated to them and I really hope that the things in the future improve for women.

“Pet Steps Sitters Theme Song”

That’s dedicated to my parents. It’s about the immigrant experience, really. Because Pet Steps Sitters is actually their business in Miami. I’m really proud of my parents because, in 2007, like a lot of people, they lost their jobs, both of them in the same week. So I was really proud of my mom who, within a month, said, “You know, we’re gonna make it and we’re going to be our own bosses.” And within a month she already was licensed, had clients, had a website, everything. So they asked me if I could write a cute little theme song for them, but I kind of focused more on the pride that I had, that my parents had accomplished this and how they overcame so much struggle. So in the end, the music didn’t sound cute at all (laughs). So they passed on it.

But actually, Terence Blanchard heard me play it during a soundcheck and he liked it. So this is actually the second recording of it. It actually ended up being on the show Treme as well. So I just keep rubbing that in my parents’ face the all the time (laughs).

“Music On My Mind”

So much of the album uses music as an instrument to portray other life experiences or feelings. I wanted the final one to be flipped, so my appreciation for music rather than using music to express feelings. I recently became aware of this song by Willie the Lion Smith. To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t listened to him too much. I think partly because his name is so intimidating for a pianist. But when I came across this song, I just thought it was one of the most beautiful and tender songs that I’ve ever heard.

The lyrics very much resonated with me, too. For example, “Music’s a thing that some people crave. It taunts me all through the night and day. It keeps me worried just what I’ll say. It has a hold on me.” You know, that sort of responsibility as an artist that I feel that the music has to make the world a better place, has to help people. It’s a really beautiful piece of music and I honestly wasn’t expecting from somebody called Willie the Lion Smith. Very tender, very vulnerable.

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