The Keystone Connections Of Fabian Almazan

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Fabian Almazan is among the 25 artists DownBeat thinks will help shape jazz in the decades to come.

(Photo: Clara Pereira/Jazztrail)

​Pianist Fabian Almazan has a distinct recollection of an incident that took place years ago at the Village Vanguard, a moment that made him feel that his art could connect with listeners in a profound way: “Out of the corner of my eye, I could see this young boy, smiling, gleaming. You could tell he was really enjoying the music, and that for me was very powerful.”

Almazan, 36, isn’t far removed from his own childhood memories. He fled Cuba at age 9, feeling sad and alone but comforted and inspired by his love for music. “I don’t know what that boy’s life was [like],” he mused, “but I’m assuming we have similar souls.”

Almazan has spent more than a dozen years in Terence Blanchard’s band, and his esteemed status as a collaborator has been bolstered by work with Paquito D’Rivera, Dave Douglas and Linda May Han Oh (whom he wed in 2018).

As a leader, Almazan has intertwined his formative love for classical repertoire and jazz with the musical influences of his homeland, resulting in two significant recordings with his band Rhizome. The second of those albums, Alcanza, was released on the artist’s own label, Biophilia, which he founded to express a commitment to environmentalism.

The philosophy behind the label is to showcase artists who, according to Almazan, “care about the environment and stand in solidarity with the people who are fighting to protect this Earth.” Among the artists on the Biophilia roster are Oh, saxophonist/vocalist María Grand, trumpeter Adam O’Farrill and vocalist Sara Serpa. The label actively collaborates with authors and conservationists, helping to raise awareness of initiatives to fight pollution and climate change.

Almazan’s latest album, This Land Abounds With Life, is a trio effort recorded with Oh and drummer Henry Cole. It was inspired by a recent visit to Cuba, his first return trip there since his family’s departure. He was in tears well before takeoff. “Cuba was all I knew,” he said. “I wrote poetry when I was 7 years old about how much I loved Cuba. I didn’t understand why we were leaving. I thought Cuba was the most wonderful place on Earth.”

Almazan’s advice for future artists? “Fail,” he said, surprisingly. “I think it’s important to not ignore that little voice that’s inside of you that’s telling you what you really like and what you have passion for. If that voice is in there, even if it’s really faint ... it’s better to fail than to not even try. Failure doesn’t mean failure. The lack of even trying—that’s failure.”

That moment at the Vanguard remains a keystone. “Have a child’s approach,” he said. “Try to be as pure about it as you can. Just listen to that voice and go after it.” DB

This story originally was published in the November 2020 issue of DownBeat. Subscribe here.