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Fabian Almazan: A Winged Homecoming

The pianist returned to his native Cuba—and its birds—for his latest project, This Land Abounds With Life

Fabian Almazab
Fabian Almazan (photo: Clara Pereira)

Fabian Almazan left Cuba with his parents, fleeing an oppressive atmosphere, when he was only nine years old. Approximately 23 years later, a two-pronged purpose brought the celebrated pianist back. “Terence Blanchard was performing at a festival in Cuba,” the longtime Blanchard sideman explains. “But I was planning on going anyway because of a Jerome Foundation grant that I had received to record the endemic birds in Cuba, and then the resulting album, This Land Abounds With Life.”

Featuring Almazan’s longstanding trio with bassist Linda May Han Oh and drummer Henry Cole, that release artfully integrates Cuba’s birds into its story. Field recordings that Almazan captured on the eastern edge of the island introduce “Songs of the Forgotten,” a composition referencing the personal and prevalent topic of displaced persons, but those sounds are also sewn into the number’s DNA. “I literally took the pitch material from the birdsongs,” he explains. “It might be a little subtle, but it’s the song of the chichinguaco, which is one of the native birds of Cuba.”

While speaking directly to one of Almazan’s reasons for return, that use of birdsong also touches on a larger theme: the intersection of man and nature. It’s a concern that surfaces in “The Everglades,” a meditation on the seasonal wonders of the titular swamplands, and it’s a subject of prime importance in his work. “Different pieces on the album reflect the nature theme more than others, but I definitely wanted to have nature play the role of being at the center of most of the issues that we have as human beings.”

Almazan also explores the darker side of those issues. “Jaula,” Spanish for “cage,” was inspired by a 2013 visit to Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum and envisions Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment while alluding to post-apartheid South Africa’s raw wounds. “Benjamin,” a frenzied yet focused number, nods to George Orwell’s Animal Farm, which was banned in Cuba. For both pieces, Almazan’s message is the same: “It’s important that we don’t forget the past so we don’t repeat the same mistakes of our predecessors.”

The land itself serves as the other obvious through line for This Land Abounds With Life. In Almazan’s hands, Cuba’s cultural riches are painted with vivid colors. The vitality of its people is ever-present in the grooves, sputter, and celebrations of “The Nomads.” Cuba’s street culture, as elevated by the Afrocubanismo movement of the 1920s and ’30s, is run through a modernist’s filter for “Folklorism.” And Bola de Nieve, an iconic pianist, singer and songwriter, receives his due on a Radiohead-esque, strings-enhanced cover of Cuban rocker Carlos Varela’s eponymous tribute. Elsewhere Almazan approaches his own lineage with a creative bent, exploring the evolution of familial roles on “Uncle Tio” and saluting his parents and their resilience on “Pet Steps Sitters Theme Song.”

The Cuban artists who paved the way for Almazan’s pursuits receive their due on “The Poets,” a composition influenced by musica campesina, a nature-themed style of music with a freestyle-poetry slant to its structure. The opening to that track, featuring the poet El Macagüero de Pinar delivering a decima, as the 10-line poems are called, was the result of an unplanned encounter. Captured in the moment on a cell phone, it came to represent a meeting of two worlds for Almazan. “That was one of the most memorable parts of the trip,” he says. “Because I left Cuba relatively young, I have this Never Never Land Peter Pan kind of thing where my childhood and adulthood were disconnected or disjointed. And, honestly, that [meeting with Pinar] was the point where my whole life just sort of connected. It was a very meaningful experience to me.”

As with previous efforts like 2017’s Alcanza, This Land Abounds with Life was released on Almazan’s own Biophilia imprint. Named for a term coined by scientist Edward O. Wilson concerning the innate attraction that human beings have toward other living things, it’s an eco-friendly label that eschews the use of needless waste. The origami-inspired packaging, made from FSC-certified paper and containing a download code, appeals to those who seek tangibles like liner notes while eliminating the use of CDs or vinyl. Almazan, Oh, and a community of like-minded artists including saxophonist María Grand, trumpeter Adam O’Farrill, and bassist Desmond White have all released projects through Biophilia, subscribing to its philosophy while spurring on an important dialogue.

“I understand that it’s an enormous problem that we have with climate change, and this is just a drop in the bucket,” Almazan says. “But I’ve always felt that any true movement has to have some sort of cultural shift. I’m not a climate-change scientist, and neither are any of the artists on the label, but I think this helps because we spark a conversation, and that, in turn, creates some awareness.”

Dan Bilawsky

Dan Bilawsky has been involved in jazz journalism for 15 years. His work has appeared in JazzTimes, JAZZed, and All About Jazz, among other outlets. In addition, he’s penned liner notes for artists on Red, Capri, HighNote/Savant, Ropeadope, and other respected imprints. A band director with 20 years of teaching experience, he holds degrees in music from Indiana University, the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, and Five Towns College.