Fabian Almazan Scores Big

With an acclaimed trio album in the bag, the pianist/composer looks toward the silver screen

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Terence Blanchard Quintet at Belgrade 2009. From left: Michael Olatuja, Brice Winston, Blanchard, Kendrick Scott; Fabian Almazan not pictured (Photo: Dragan Tasic)
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Fabian Almazan
By Vincent Soyez

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The Cuban-born, New York-based pianist and composer Fabian Almazan, 27, is developing the sort of career most young jazz musicians can’t fathom. Since 2007 he’s held the piano chair in the revered Terence Blanchard Quintet; when we speak for this piece, he’s just wrapped a wildly successful week headlining the Village Vanguard, in support of his acclaimed debut album, Personalities (Biophilia). “It was a dream come true,” he says of the gigs, which featured his trio with bassist Linda Oh and drummer Henry Cole, plus a string quartet. (He will return to the club with Oh and Cole Feb. 21-26.) “Everybody was really encouraging, and I learned a lot.”

Blanchard speaks of him in less modest terms. “Fabian is probably one of the great young talents of his generation,” the trumpeter says. “Once people really hear what he’s about and what he’s doing, they’re gonna be enriched.”

Certainly the notices Almazan’s received from his trio CD and live appearances bear out Blanchard’s prediction. So does his sound: a polished, careful touch that hints at his Latin heritage (particularly when he plays songs from the Cuban repertoire), but utilizes the angular rhythms and advanced harmony of 21st-century jazz. If he gets his way, however, audiences will be enriched by him in another way. Almazan’s ambitions include not only the concert stage and recording studio, but the silver screen as well. “Right now I find myself listening to a lot of film music,” he says. “I’m becoming very interested in, sonically, what can happen with recorded music and film. That’s kind of what I’ve been experimenting with.”

Jazz musicians writing for film is nothing new. The list of practitioners includes such totemic names as Duke Ellington, Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman. Almazan’s employer, Blanchard, is currently one of Hollywood’s most prolific and in-demand composers, notably scoring more than a dozen of Spike Lee’s projects.

Nor is it a new interest for Almazan, who immigrated at 10 to Mexico, then to Miami. He scored some documentaries while still an undergraduate at Manhattan School of Music and has since done some short films. Additionally, he performed with Blanchard on the soundtrack to Lee’s Miracle at St. Anna from 2008. Recently, though, his interest has intensified: Last summer he was one of six participants in the Sundance Institute’s prestigious Composers’ Lab.

Almazan was one of more than 250 composers who applied for the program, a number that is typical each year, according to Peter Golub, a composer and director of Sundance’s Film Music Program. “It’s very competitive,” he says. “We’re looking for originality, for that notion of somebody having their own voice. Listening to Fabian’s application—we require a bio and a demo—it just jumped out. There was something fresh there.”

“He came back and said it changed his life,” Blanchard adds.

Indeed, listening to Almazan describe the fellowship, it’s clear that he experienced something profound. “It’s a two-week-long program, and every two or three days a different established film composer would come in and give the student composers a clip of a film that had already been scored,” he explains with excitement. “So we re-scored it, and then at the end of the two or three days, we’d have a screening so everybody would get to listen to each other’s work, and finally to the actual score that was used for the film. … It was amazing.”

Two of Almazan’s exercises from the Lab (re-scored scenes from the 2009 film The Winning Season and 2011’s Priest) can be viewed on his website, FabianAlmazan.com. Both clips use lush MIDI orchestration in an effective combination of contemporary trends and unusual voicings. “His stuff is very layered,” says Golub, who spent time observing Almazan at work. “The whole is very graspable, but something about how he balances complexity and simplicity, I think will make it interesting to watch him.”

Almazan has applied these lessons in his jazz playing as well. “When you hear Fabian play with us,” says Blanchard, “he takes these long, extended solos that can be very dramatic and cinematic in tone. And he already has his own voice, as a pianist and a composer. So he always has that within him.”

Personalities has also served as a sounding board for his film-music techniques. One track, “H.U.Gs (Historically Underrepresented Groups),” appeared on the soundtrack for the 2010 Common/Queen Latifah film Just Wright; two others feature arrangements for classical string quartet that interact freely with the jazz trio. “Classical music comes from a very different background than jazz, but I think the two genres are going to start interacting with each other more,” says the pianist. “One of the reasons film music appeals to me so much is that it is so stylistically open: Every single type of music that you can imagine has been in film. Whatever works for the story being told is what you have to do.”

For Almazan, jazz and film music aren’t different musical worlds, just separate canvases on which to apply an ever-broadening palette. If his burgeoning career thus far is any indication, he won’t just enrich audiences, but the music itself.

Originally published in January/February 2012

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