In 1998, Fabian Almazan fell and injured his right wrist. He was 14. For weeks after his surgery, the young right-handed pianist was in full recovery mode, and couldn’t play the way he was used to playing. But what could have been a long and debilitating recovery period turned out to be an artistic awakening.
Not wanting his student to lose inspiration—or practice hours—Almazan’s piano teacher recommended he check out Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. But the album Almazan wound up purchasing included more than the left hand concerto and, after playing the record in its entirety, he found himself digging into the G-Major Piano Concerto and a number of suites Ravel composed for piano, then orchestrated—an experience that set Almazan on the path toward exploring orchestral concepts in his own music.
“It made an instant impression on me,” he says. “It kind of opened up my mind. And in terms of how it’s affected me as a pianist, I really try to be more aware of my left hand, as well as inner voices, in general.”
Years after his wrist mended, Almazan continued working through arrangements of original music, paying what he considered close attention to voice leading and other fundamentals of orchestral arranging. But a commission by The Jazz Gallery would transform his relationship to orchestration, once again. “When I was commissioned a couple years ago, I decided to write a song for a choir,” he says.
“As musicians, we study voice leading all the time, but we kind of forget where that comes from. It’s literally ‘voice leading.’ So, writing for the choir was ear-opening, I would say, because there’s a lot of—not rules, but music theory that you try to apply as a composer, but when you actually do it for a choir, it really hits home. You have an immediate impression of why there are certain things—that in the Baroque era they used to do, and they still do—that really click when you have a choir singing what you wrote. It’s the human voice. You really can tell when something’s working, and when it’s not.”
At a point in his career when he had a strong working concept of each instrument’s strengths and limitations, Almazan found arranging for the choir to broaden his understanding of how to develop those strengths and limitations in a way that serves the arc of the composition.
“There are just very specific things about range—the dynamic range of, just, volume, as well as timbre—that’s just the blending of altos versus tenors, or sopranos,” says Almazan. “It was just very enlightening for me to have had the opportunity at the Gallery to write for a choir. And I’ve kind of held on to all those things I’ve learned and I try to apply them to everything I do now.”
Experiences playing and collaborating with a range of different artists over the years—from Gretchen Parlato to Terence Blanchard—as well as studying with masters like Kenny Barron and Giampaolo Bracali, have compelled Almazan to focus on the idea of preparation as a way to access spontaneity.
“I’ve worked really hard over the years to be able to kind of deal with whatever situation comes up in an improvised music setting, so I’ve studied different cultures and their music,” he says. “Being from Cuba, I did grow up surrounded by—just—all sorts of music, ranging from Rumba, which is what they play in the streets, to classical Cuban music and Cuban rock. I guess since I grew up around that, it’s kind of in my blood, but I still like to study it just out of curiosity and respect I have toward the tradition.”
Coming to New York from a country with its own artistic identity, Almazan immediately identified with myriad other musicians who traveled to New York to play and develop, working through their own perceived weaknesses and facilitating the cultural exchange unique to the city’s music scene.
“I feel like I’m just lucky to live in New York because the majority of the people that are here are here because they want to be. They’re really trying to be the best musicians that they can be, and it rubs off on you. I feel very inspired when I’m in a musical situation where I hear all the creativity coming out of these musicians, and it’s the result of them really, really working hard at trying to grow as musicians.”
Inspired by his own experiences and what might be the collective spirit of every New York artist, Almazan recently recorded Alcanza (Biophilia Records, 2017), a project that focuses on resilience and conviction.
“Alcanza is a word in Spanish that means ‘to reach,’ says Almazan. “And the idea behind that is that everybody should absolutely try to reach for everything that makes them happy, and try to live fulfilling lives. For me, growing up as a Cuban American in Miami, I felt like sometimes teachers didn’t really understand how I could be Cuban and also be interested in classical music and ecology and jazz—and all these things. So, at its root, the message behind this album is to encourage people who don’t expect society to expect much of them to actually reach for whatever it is that makes them happy.”
The result of the Chamber Music America: New Jazz Works grant Almazan received in 2014, and in conjunction with the Chamber Music America’s Presenter Consortium for Jazz that The Jazz Gallery secured for the event, Alcanza’s upcoming performance at the Gallery will feature Linda May Han Oh, Dan Weiss, Sara Serpa, Megan Gould, Tomoko Omura, Karen Waltuch and Noah Hoffeld, many of whose contributions have been part of Alcanza’s live sound for the past two years, before Almazan brought the project into the studio this past June.
Composing for Alcanza, Almazan sought to disengage from all the prep work he’s completed over the years as a musician, and challenge himself to connect with the music on a human level, as an artist.
“I really tried to wash away any sort of self-criticism while I was composing the music, and I tried to detach myself from any sort of stereotypes,” he says. “My goal was just to fulfill whatever emotional, abstract feeling I had as a human being, not as a musician. I was trying to guide myself through the emotional content rather than the craft or the tradition or anything like that. I was trying to get at the ‘most pure’ artistic expression that I could get at, and that required for me not to necessarily think of myself as Cuban or as a jazz musician or anything like that. I was trying to start from scratch—from a blank canvas, completely.”
But in music and art, self-criticism is ubiquitous. And for Almazan, quieting inner discouraging words throughout the creative process proved an experience all its own.
“As an artist, I have a lot of peers whose work I really admire and respect, and I don’t know about them but for me, sometimes, it can be challenging to sort of stop caring about what anybody else thinks and just be true to the music I’m hearing inside my head.”
While Almazan develops new projects from his own perspective as an artist, he continues to avail himself to his peers as a player. Of the fundamental skills he’s focused on sharpening over the course of his career, keeping time remains the most critical.
“At its core, having basic good time, being able to keep a pulse, which is literally just sitting down and playing a quarter note in time, that’s the building blocks of rhythm, and it’s something that’s often overlooked,” says Almazan. “So I literally do that sometimes. And I talk to Mark Guiliana about this a lot—everybody’s thinking about all these complex things that you can do with rhythm, that we often overlook the very foundation of it, which is the heartbeat. So I try to work on pulse a lot. There’s a lot of different groupings that you could do; it’s limitless, the amount of combinations that you could do, rhythmically. But I think, in the end, the most important thing is your psychology.”
The great psychological—and physical—challenge, according to Almazan, is a question of balance.
“It’s really challenging as an artist because you want to have that intensity in the sound, but not in your body,” he says. “You want your body to be relaxed and calm, but the music you’re creating to have tension and release. So I think, as human beings, when we want to covey that, our bodies sometimes can go along and also get tense then relax. And that’s human nature. That’s just how we’re wired. But I think, in order to have good time, and to be able to stay in the beat and not rush or drag, it’s a very challenging balance of being internally relaxed but externally [intense]. It’s a very Zen thing you have to work on which, honestly, has very little to do with the music. It’s more your emotional-psychological approach to it.”
Stretching together with peers on an existing project, or piecing together a new one, Almazan strives to continue developing his artistry in a truthful way, as he has done with Alcanza.
“As abstract as it may be,” he says, “I felt like the way that I would determine the success of the endeavor was if I felt like it was genuine and honest, not whether I thought people would think it’s good or bad. It’s a little challenging sometimes to just step out there, but at a certain point I had to just trust that I had studied music to such a degree where I could depend on my own gut and write the music that I’m imagining.”
Fabian Almazan’s shows at The Jazz Gallery this Friday, February 16, and Saturday, February 17, is made possible by the Chamber Music America Presenter Consortium for Jazz grant and will feature Sara Serpa on voice, Megan Gould and Tomoko Omura on violin, Karen Waltuch on viola, Noah Hoffeld on cello, Linda May Han Oh on bass and Dan Weiss on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.