Fabian Almazan is one of the most astonishing pianists in creative music today. He’s a composer and arranger of breadth, a gorgeous accompanist of singers and soloists, a soloist of great invention and daring, the founder of a profoundly creative and responsible independent label (Biophilia Records), and now a leader whose band is rethinking an old format for a new era.
This Land Abounds with Life features Almazan’s trio, with Linda May Han Oh on bass and Henry Cole’s drums. Additionally, one track calls back to Almazan’s astonishing writing for string quartet, which was featured extensively in his project Rhizome, with the trio, string quartet, and vocals by Camila Meza. But, primarily, the new recording demonstrates how Almazan and his trio are taking this tried-and-true jazz formula—acoustic piano, acoustic bass, drums—and adapting it to a new century’s sound and reach.
Almazan may use the strings on only one track, but This Land Abounds with Life is a profoundly orchestral artistic statement. Clocking in at about 85 minutes of music, the recording features 12 compositions, ten by the leader. He deploys the three sounds of the band with care across each track, the string quartet once, and then field recordings from a trip back to his native Cuba on three tracks. Every arrangement is deliberate and structured, truly “composed” while not inhibiting the freedom of the trio as an expressive entity. The composed elements are so broad in source and style—classical-sounding etudes, recorded voices, Afro-Cuban grooves, ballad structures from jazz history, unison lines of dazzling complexity, cinematic sections of mood or impressionism that might include washes of synthesizer—that they reimagine the whole concept of this as a “jazz trio”.
“The Poets”, a song inspired by Cuban “Punto” music and a tradition of improvised folk music/poetry, exhibits the great range of Almazan’s band and method. At the start, the trio sets up an atmospheric sound that mimics a strummed guitar as a Cuban poet improvises a poem for Almazan on a recording. The trio then shifts into a dance rhythm in triple meter, Oh bouncing a just a couple of notes and Cole establishing a simple but hip polyrhythm as Almazan begins his improvising over a simple interval. The improvisation deepens rhythmically and emotionally but never grows particularly dissonant or complex, with its patterns becoming a dialogue between percussion and piano.
After several minutes, the groove becomes tangled and explodes into a hyper-modern line shared by the piano and a distorted synth. It’s a frantic rushing thing that overflows into a skittering and thrilling double-timed bit of New Jazz, with piano becoming a percussion waterfall and the drums and bass lifting everything into energy. The unison modern line returns, now matched perfectly by the drums. Then the composition adds an extended coda of piano, washes of synthesizer, and the recorded sounds of birds. It is power, episodic, and dynamic. And like no other “jazz” you’ve heard.
That telegraph-like, repeating pattern style is also present in the wind-in-your-face opening track “Benjamin”. The tempo is breakneck at the start, a nervous melody of rippling patterns and repeated motifs flying like a supersonic, madly caffeinated fantasy. But here too, Almazan isn’t willing to settle just for that dazzling theme, adding a contrasting section at half-time during which the band lopes in a slightly drunk-sounding manner over a lazy moment of funk. When the lightning open theme returns, it sounds even more fleet and wonderful, leading to an Almazan improvisation that steals your breath like nobody’s business.
“Nomads” uses a similar dazzle, expressed through Cole’s drums as they ripple and prattle with precision beneath a couple of piano/bass themes that are expressed through a looping repetition of patterns. The patterns are not monotonous, however as they syncopate and surprise with each turn, morphing to lock in with the drums and to work in contrast to them at other moments. Then, true to Almazan’s form, he repeats one of the pattern themes against a quiet backing, providing textural, orchestral contrast all within the format of the trio. The primary improvisation is a set of slower funk groove punctuated by one of those bits of repetition, with the piano spinning harmonic and melodic variations even as we enjoy the sense of familiarity.
Texture is a subtle thing, and the orchestral spirit of This Land Abounds with Life is often expressed in ballad form. “Songs of the Forgotten” begins with recordings of Cuban birds and moves into a quietly surging theme stated by piano and bass, together. After two minutes, the birds reemerge, along with a wash of ethereal synthesizers and what appear to be echoey samples of a distant marching band, all blended with the low piano theme. It’s no surprise, however that the bass theme is then paired with a right-hand piano figure, quick downward slurs in the high register, that echo the song of the birds. It is the great mark of these musicians that this weaving structure never overwhelms their performance as improvisers with their own voice. Almazan has created new kinds of structure, yes, but they are still conducive to creating a creative context for individual expression.
“Bola De Nieve”, a composition by a Cuban musician, Carlos Varela, that was from the trio’s first album, without the new string quartet arrangement. Again the additional orchestration is not an impediment to the soloists having their say. This performance is particularly strong for Oh, whose bass sails over the other strings fluidly, sounding completely at home in this mode.
If all this sounds rather heavy? Then fear not. Almazan has a deft, light touch as a composer as well. “Folklorism” features a simple, childlike melody stated in single notes high in the piano’s register, an almost toylike theme that is doubled by Oh, low in her bass register. The playful, back-and-forth accompanying figure sounds just enough like the wagging of a puppy’s tail, especially as Oh trades in the melody to mimic in on her strings. The trio takes the basic rhythmic impulse of the tune on a great ride. “Uncle Tio” similarly exploits a simple figure that sways back and forth, creating greater complexity as it is developed. “Pet Steps Sitters Theme Song” prances quite a bit too, appropriately. Oh shines as a soloist on all three tunes.
For repeat listenings, Almazan’s ballad performances are the thing. “Jaula”, written in remembrance of Nelson Mandela, is a solo piano piece that gives the pianist’s left hand a dramatic melody beneath a toggling of chords in the treble register. The variations and improvisation is a miracle of never forgetting the source material—perhaps a reference to the sense of togetherness that Mandela insisted on as a leader. “Ella” is a duet performance for Oh and Almazan, and it has a beautiful contour of melody that rotates and curls back on itself. The two instruments share lead duties in a relaxed way, with both sounding like singers.
The last tune in the album’s sequence, “Music on My Mind”, is a gentle reading of a melody by Willie the Lion Smith. Almazan plays it without fuss or worry, just giving us a gorgeous melody in his own style. Listening to it allows you to think about the leader’s style as a pianist. There is an ease to Almazan’s playing. He is nimble and capable of plenty of fancy footwork, sure, but his default as a player and a composer is to the simple line, the compelling figure, the repeated lick that builds into something nuanced without being, in itself, complex or overthought.
Almazan shows throughout This Land Abounds with Life that simple and beautiful elements, layered upon themselves, can be a new way of organizing piano trio music—or any kind of music, really. But in transforming a tradition as tried and true as the jazz piano trio, he shows us how his methods might transform many other staid formats.