Fabian Almazan Trio – Personalities – Biophilia BRCD0001, 65:45 ***:
(Fabian Almazan – piano, electronics; Linda Oh – acoustic bass; Henry Cole – drums, guiro; Meg Okura and Megan Gould – violin (tracks 1 & 3); Karen Waltuch – viola (tracks 1 & 3); Noah Hoffeld (tracks 1 & 3))
Most of pianist Fabian Almazan’s hour-long debut album, Personalities, is a mixture of modern fusion, some Latin American touches (which indicate Almazan’s Cuban heritage) and contemporary New York City jazz. But like many newer jazz artists, Almazan is not tethered to tradition but instead lets his imagination roam and creates material equally inspired by alternative rock music, jazz, Cuban folk roots and Almazan’s classical education. Most of the 10 tracks feature Almazan’s core trio with rising bass star Linda Oh and drummer Henry Cole. Strings enhance two cuts.
Almazan studied orchestration as a graduate student but by that time other influences had interweaved in his head and when he left school he drifted to jazz (he apprenticed with Terence Blanchard) while he also soaked up other types of music. Almazan’s classical training is immediately noticed on the opener, an eight-minute reconstructed rendition of the third movement from Shostakovich’s String Quartet No. 10, Op. 118 where Almazan supplements his piano with violins, viola and cello. But lest anyone think Almazan stays neutral, the piece is electronically treated through delay and distortion, resulting in an odd and audacious blend of European conventions and alt-rock, post-studio processing: at times, more Radiohead than Russian post-romanticism. The middle section in particular is a raucous segment. The string quartet is heard again on the lightly swinging, jazzy title track, but utilized mostly as coloring in the background with piano, bass and drums most often in the foreground.
As the album implies, Almazan’s compositions are linked by a unifying theme: the people who have impacted Almazan’s life. Family plays a strong role in Almazan’s creativity. “Grandmother Song” is a dusky and gray-specked ballad which simmers with emotion, where Almazan’s delicate piano chords are shadowed by Oh’s subtle bass notes and Cole’s nuanced cymbals and sticks. There is a similar sensitivity on “Una Foto,” a sepia-shaded tribute to Almazan’s mother, which has a late-night, last-call refinement.
Almazan’s Cuban legacy is more pronounced on three other tunes. One of the CD’s highlights is a vivid cover of Cuban songwriter Carlos Varela’s moving “Bola de Nieve,” a showpiece for Almazan’s keyboard skills. Almazan’s “Sin Alma” is a mid-tempo and reflective number which references an overheard conversation about atheism. Much earthier is an interpretation of famed Cuban bandleader Antonio Maria Romeu’s danzón (or Cuban dance) favorite “Tres Lindas Cubanas,” which commences with a two-minute piano solo underscored by scratchy vinyl surface noise (possibly meant to echo old LPs Almazan’s parents listened to). The trio then enters and the bass, drums and piano bring Romeu’s work firmly into the present age.
Socio-economic awareness is the motivation for the modernistic, fusion-flecked “H.U.Gs (Historically Underrepresented Groups),” where Almazan switches to Fender Rhodes and the rhythm section uses an up-to-date beat. While the Rhodes adds an interesting twist to Almazan’s style (something which hopefully he will try further down the road on future outings), there are also stellar contributions from Oh and Cole. The title was previously part of the soundtrack for the 2010 Queen Latifah film, Just Wright, but is best experienced via this seven-minute version. Throughout Personalities, the different components (classical, jazz, Cuban folk and more) sometimes seem disparate but most often are cohesive rather than disjointed. Almazan’s music succeeds best when he puts jazz at the forefront (which occurs most of the time, since this is a jazz release) and steers a clear path, but his avowed worldview aesthetic supplies options which broaden his audio palette. It will be fascinating to hear where Almazan goes next.
String Quartet No. 10, Op. 118 -111. Adagio; H.U.Gs (Historically Underrepresented Groups); Personalities; The Vicarious Life; Grandmother Song; Bola de Nieve; Russian Love Story; Sin Alma; Tres Lindas Cubanas; Una Foto.
Trumpeter John Bailey, with a dream quartet- it’s all good…