A few years ago, Fabian Almazan was on tour in Brazil with trumpet star Terence Blanchard. On a night off, the Cuban-born pianist found himself on the remote northeastern beach in Jericoacoara, and stumbled into a life-changing moment of clarity.
“The tide went out as far as I could see, and I walked out toward the ocean for about 15 minutes,” recalls Almazan, 33, who brings his double-quartet project Rhizome to Kuumbwa on Wednesday, March 7. “I looked up and saw the dome of stars and was so moved by the enormity of the universe and my place it in, the absurdity and beauty of life.”
Almazan certainly isn’t the first musician to be awed by an encounter with the Milky Way, but his singular life path provided him with the internal and external resources to translate that epiphany into some of the most extravagantly beautiful new music on the planet.
He recorded the nine-movement suite on his recent album Alcanza, and like his critically hailed 2014 album Rhizome, the new project features his New York quartet with Chilean vocalist/guitarist Camila Meza, Australian bassist Linda May Han Oh, and Puerto Rican drummer Henry Cole, along with a string quartet—at Kuumbwa, that means San Francisco’s adventurous Friction Quartet.
A botanical word for a rootstock with multiple shoots emerging, Rhizome is an apt description for an ensemble that gracefully embraces opposing musical impulses, particularly improvisation and intricately constructed composition. With elaborately detailed charts, the music is by necessity much more through-composed than usual in jazz contexts.
“You have so many possibilities with strings, you have to limit it, put guidelines so things are cohesive,” Almazan says.
But describing Alcanza as chamber jazz doesn’t really capture Rhizome’s impact. Dynamically volatile and built on constantly shifting rhythms, the suite is laced with Almazan’s electronics, which add depth to the tidal textures. He credits his decade-long tenure with Blanchard—which included contributing to soundtracks for films by Spike Lee and George Lucas—with radically expanding his sonic sensibility.
“One thing that opened up my mind was the film score sessions,” Almazan says. “As one of the musicians in the pit watching Terence communicate with an orchestra and seeing the beautiful textures he can get, I realized I don’t have to think in these boxes. And I’m extremely grateful that he’s given me absolute freedom to experiment with electronics, both in the quintet and E-Collective. I’ve tried every piece of software under the sun. I’ve tried hardware. I run acoustic piano through effects. It’s constantly evolving, and of course I bring that into my music.”
The most obvious new element in Almazan’s music is his growing reliance on Camila Meza. On 2014’s Rhizome, he used her wordless vocals as a horn-like element. But on Alcanza, her brilliant guitar work is fully integrated into the ensemble, while her vocals are even more central, as Almazan created several songs as part of the suite.
He had never thought of writing lyrics before hearing Meza sing, “but something clicked when I came to one of her shows,” he says.
“I felt like I wanted to convey these abstract emotions, and lyrics are a direct way of communicating that message. Well, direct if you speak Spanish. I feel a sense of responsibility now given the open hostility to Spanish-speaking people, particularly from Mexico, coming from the White House. I want the younger generation of Hispanic youth to hear and know they can be whatever they want to be.”
INFO: 7 p.m. Wednesday March 7, Kuumbwa Jazz, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. $25/adv, $30/door. 427-2227.