Editors' pick

Fabian Almazan

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Fabian Almazan photo
(Vincent Soyez)

Editorial Review

Jazz artist tweaks Cuban classics
By Geoffrey Himes
Friday, May 25, 2012

On Fabian Almazan’s debut album, “Personalities,” the sound of a needle dropping onto a scratchy old LP can be heard at the beginning of the track “Tres Lindas Cubanas.” The stylus sound continues as the jazz pianist’s trio nails the old-fashioned lilt of this 19th-century danzon, which is played at almost every wedding, birthday party or anniversary party where Cubans or Cuban Americans gather.

A little more than two minutes into the song, however, the needle sound suddenly evaporates and so does the decorous arrangement, as Almazan, bassist Linda Oh and drummer Henry Cole dig into a muscular modern-jazz improvisation on the tune. The dramatic shift echoes the changes in Almazan’s own life: He was only 23 when he joined one of the world’s great jazz bands, the Terence Blanchard Quintet, after a childhood in Cuba, high school in Miami and college in New York. A lot has happened to him in a short time, and he tries to incorporate it all into his first recording as a band leader.

“One of the things I like about folkloric music is it performs two tasks for the musician and the audience,” says Almazan, 28, who leads his trio at Blues Alley on Saturday. “One, it keeps the tradition alive. And, two, it allows the current generation to revise that tradition. A danzon is designed for a ballroom setting where the elite gather, so the first part is very formal. But there’s a long tradition of improvisation in Cuban music, as in jazz, so the second part is where the musicians get to add what they know. It was my way of honoring the place where I was born. It’s part of who I am, and I wanted my first CD to reflect that.”

If his version of “Tres Lindas Cubanas” represents one kind of cultural collision, his version of Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 10 represents another. It is one of Almazan’s favorite pieces from his years of classical piano lessons, and his trio performs the slow third movement with a string quartet in heartfelt fashion. But Almazan also is a product of the 21st century’s microchip-music era, and after the tracks were recorded, he manipulated them with processers to create ghostly wails, chirps and rumbles within Shostakovich’s melody.

“I really love that movement,” the young pianist says. “As a human being, I felt lucky to have heard that piece. But I also love the music of Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood, especially his orchestral stuff, of Pierre Boulez and of Harry Gregson Williams, the film composer who did the ‘Shrek’ movies. All three of them are amazing at controlling sound with electronics, and I thought their approach would work well with the adagio.”

A musical collision of a different kind can be heard in Almazan’s own composition, “The Vicarious Life,” also on the debut disc. His right hand plays rapid arpeggios, broken chords that hover prettily but nervously above the rhythm section, while his left hand plays dark, stomping chords. The contrast between the two parts grows until the tension is unbearable. It’s as if the more the right hand tries to push the tune into romantic lyricism, the more the left hand resists.

“That piece was inspired by stage parents,” Almazan says. “When I started out in music, I was constantly surrounded by kids whose parents were hovering and controlling. I could tell that these parents genuinely loved their kids but were going about it the wrong way and making their kids miserable. That piece was trying to reflect both those things.

“All parents make mistakes, but I think my parents were very good at respecting my choices as a child in terms of what I wanted to do professionally. They were there for me when I needed advice, but they gave me space to figure out things on my own.”

Another Almazan original on the album, “H.U.Gs (Historically Underrepresented Groups),” which was originally recorded by the Terence Blanchard Group, was written about the time of the 2008 presidential election as a tribute to Barack Obama. Almazan re-recorded it for his trio’s album, and it’s the only track on which he plays an electronic keyboard.

At last year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Almazan performed “HUGS” with the Brice Winston Quartet, a combo led by Blanchard’s former tenor saxophonist and backed by Blanchard’s current rhythm section. Almazan played the tune on acoustic piano, working through the mid-tempo changes with his trademark arpeggios. Yet his rippling phrases did more than just sketch out the changes; they carved out a hummable melody with a dashing sense of romanticism.

There was a cinematic quality to Almanzan’s playing, and that’s no accident, for his bandleader and mentor Blanchard is arguably the most successful film-soundtrack composer who also has maintained a flourishing jazz career. Blanchard, who has written the scores for most of Spike Lee’s movies, has often used his bandmates on those soundtracks and has schooled them in the ways of creating music for a visual narrative. Last summer, Blanchard brought Almazan to play on the score for the George Lucas film “Red Tails.”

Almazan also attended the Sundance Institute’s Composers Lab last year, thanks to Blanchard’s recommendation. Every few days, a different professional film composer would visit the six students, talk about the art form and challenge them to score the same five-minute clip. Two days later, they would reassemble to hear one another’s work as well as the veteran composer’s own score for the same clip.

“I really enjoy writing for film,” Almazan says, “because music isn’t the central focus. Music is very abstract and can be interpreted in many ways, but when you have a narrative being told, there’s a clearer message to the audience. Music can be frustrating when you write something and the audience interprets it in a completely different way than what you intended. That doesn’t happen as often in film.”

Almazan has already received a commission to compose the score for South African director Daniel Zimbler’s next movie. But even in his non-cinema projects, Almazan creates narratives with his instrumental music, whether it’s the story of his childhood in Havana, his early gigs in Manhattan, his classical piano lessons in Miami, his electronica experiments in Utah or his observation of stage parents everywhere.