Fabian Almazan, jazz pianist with Terence Blanchard: Something Else! Interview

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Fabian Almazan, a Havana-born, Miami-raised jazz pianist who has worked with Terence Blanchard since 2007, is set to release Alcanza on June 2, 2017. That follows 2011’s Personalities on Biophilia, 2014’s Rhizome via Blue Note, and the live set SWR New Jazz Meeting from earlier this year. He joined Preston Frazier for a Something Else! Sitdown to discuss a chance first meeting with Blanchard, his musical roots, the new solo album and what’s next …

PRESTON FRAZIER: Fabian, I first became aware of you when I saw you performing as part of trumpet player Terence Blanchard’s band at a stop in Evanston, Illinois. Blanchard mentioned a few things about your background. Please share more with us about your upbringing.
FABIAN ALMAZAN: I am from Havana, Cuba and grew up in Miami, Fla., from the age of 9. I graduated from New World School of the Arts and moved to California when I was 18 to study at the Brubeck Institute. After that, I moved to New York, where I have been since 2003.

PRESTON FRAZIER: What inspired you to become a musician? Where your parents musicians?
FABIAN ALMAZAN: From as early as I can remember, I decided to play music because it helped people – myself included. I have always just wanted to help other people deal with life through music. My father was a classically trained bassist in Cuba, who also played popular Cuban music on electric bass with his bands, Convergencia and Los Cañas. He was a big fan of Jaco Pastorius, and there was usually Weather Report playing in the background in the apartment I grew up in in Havana. My first musical experience I can remember was playing claves when I was 4 or so in one of my dad’s bands.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Tell us more about your musical education. How did take up the piano?
FABIAN ALMAZAN: I have a sister who is 4 1/2 years older than I. When I was 7, she began taking piano lessons and she was the biggest thing in the world to me. I loved her very much and wanted to do anything she did. So, I began taking lessons at that point too with an older teacher named Cucú, who was around 90 years old. My sister stopped taking lessons after about a year but I pretty quickly developed a dependence on the piano to feel balanced. I feel like without the piano, I am missing an abstract sort of way of communicating and processing my experiences throughout life that I just can’t function without. I never really chose to do music as a career; it’s more of a friend that I just couldn’t bring myself to part ways with.

PRESTON FRAZIER: How did you meet Terence Blanchard?
FABIAN ALMAZAN: I met Terence in 2007 during the soundcheck for the first gig he asked me to play. It was somewhere in the Midwest in February; I can’t remember exactly where. I was recommended by Ambrose Akinmusire and contacted by Terence’s manager, who asked me to send in some recordings of myself. I feel very fortunate to have been playing with Terence now for 10 years.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Personalities shows a high level of musical sophistication for a debut, seamlessly incorporating jazz and classic elements. 2014’s follow-up Rhizome seems to raise the bar with its arrangements and use of strings. How does your upcoming release Alcanza differ from the prior two albums?
FABIAN ALMAZAN: Thank you for the kind words on Personalities and Rhizome. I also released an album in January of this year with Realm of Possibilities. It’s a double-disc live recording of three concerts we played in Germany in November of 2015.

Alcanza is a nine movement suite which features the same band from Rhizome. The album is a continuous, uninterrupted 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. Every time we’ve performed this, it’s felt like an offering, or a ritual: A cathartic experience for the audience. I was commissioned by Chamber Music America and am extremely grateful to the organization for giving me the New Jazz Works 2014 award. This album will also be my first release that will come out as a biopholio.

Here’s the official description of what a biopholio is: A two-sided, 20-panel medium inspired by the traditional Japanese art of paper folding, origami. Bursting with vibrant artwork and liner notes, each biopholio is made entirely out of FSC-certified, robust paper, hand-folded and printed using plant-based inks. Found inside each biopholio is a unique code for the listener to digitally download the music in hers/his preferred high-quality audio format. This innovative design caters to the environmentally conscious listener, who is aware of the harmful effects of plastic in the environment, yet feels that a digital download is just not enough. With your purchase, you are supporting the future of this music and the artists who create it with the added bonus of receiving a tangible piece of original album artwork that you can proudly cherish for years to come.

PRESTON FRAZIER: What other players are on this new project?
FABIAN ALMAZAN: Camila Meza, voice and guitar; Megan Gould, violin; Tomoko Omura, violin; Karen Waltuch, viola; Noah Hoffeld, cello; Fabian Almazan, piano, electronics; Linda Oh, bass; and Henry Cole, drums.

PRESTON FRAZIER: In addition to your solo work and occasional session work around New York, you recently have kicked off your own record label. What’s your motivation for such a heady project?
FABIAN ALMAZAN: It is definitely not for the money! My reasons for putting together Biophilia Records are two-fold: I know some musicians that are making quality, moving and imaginative music. These are extremely hard-working individuals who I believe in and want to help spread their music to the world. Also, I really care about the environment and feel a sense of urgency to speak up about climate change.

Biophilia means “an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems.” Our home is Harlem, New York City. What sets Biophilia Records apart from other traditional music labels is that in addition to creating meaningful and imaginative music, our artists are united by a common interest in having a positive impact on the environment and our communities. Our artists collaborate with organizations that specialize in conservation, sustainability and outreach initiatives. We regularly volunteer hands-on in community events to help however we can. Our manifesto can be found here.

PRESTON FRAZIER: What are some of the upcoming projects we should look for from the label?
FABIAN ALMAZAN: On April 18th, we will be performing outside at Union Square in the afternoon, teaming up with the BioBus to have a solar-powered stage, free performing celebrating Earth Day. Later this year, Biophilia will issue albums by Bryan and the Aardvarks (Sounds from the Deep Field, April 28, 2017); Endless Field (a self-titled album, June 23, 2017); and Desmond White (Glace, July 21, 2017). Also recently released was Linda May Han Oh’s Walk Against Wind.

PRESTON FRAZIER: Do you have any tour plans for 2017?
FABIAN ALMAZAN: On June 7th, I will be performing a Biopholio release concert for Alcanza at National Sawdust in Brooklyn, N.Y., with Camila Meza, Megan Gould, Tomoko Omura, Karen Waltuch, Noah Hoffeld, Linda Oh and Henry Cole. On June 23, I’ll be performing Alcanza at Detroit Symphony Orchestra Space with the Detroit Symphony string quartet. I’m touring with Terence and Mark Guiliana in April; Dave Douglas and Terence in Europe in May; Mark Guiliana again in June and July in Europe; and also Linda May Han Oh.

PRESTON FRAZIER: What are your top 5 favorite albums?
FABIAN ALMAZAN: Ravel: Piano Concertos; Menuet Antique; Le Tombeau de Couperin; Fanfare; Bodysong by Jonny Greenwood; Motherland by Danilo Perez; Live at the Vanguard by John Coltrane; and Standards Live by Keith Jarrett.

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