The Roots of Pianist Fabian Almazan's "Rhizome" and The Tree That Worked

In my review piece in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, I discussed two new CDs by two brilliant musicians on the rise—trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and pianist Fabian Almazan. Each album involved a core small jazz ensemble augmented by a string quartet and other musicians as well as singers, and tethered to extra-musical ideas.

As I wrote:

These new recordings by Mr. Akinmusire, who is 31, and Mr. Almazan, 29, sound nothing alike. Neither artist adheres to standard notions of “jazz with strings,” which often involve little more than the sweetening and thickening of harmonies. If the two albums are emblematic of any trend, they reveal a generation of musicians with training in jazz, classical and other styles successfully chipping away at the walls between genres and cultures, or simply enjoying freedoms afforded by natural decay. Both CDs feature vocalists and original lyrics, integrated within mostly instrumental frameworks in ways that also suggest the erosion of the lines between sung songs and small-ensemble jazz compositions.

I’ll get to more specifics about Akinmusire in a later post. But here’s more on Almazan, who will celebrate the recent release of his CD, “Rhizome” (Blue Note/ArtistShare), at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard March 27-30. The music is compelling, suggestive of many things—here’s a link he sent to me with a filmed dance interpretation of some of this music.
Above is the new CD’s cover, which is meant to evoke both a rhizome—”the subterranean part of a plant that survives regardless of the conditions above ground, within a giant system in which what we see as separate is intricately connected,” Almazan explained—and the notion, also expressed in Almazan’s Spanish lyrics to his composition, “Espejos,” that “we are mirrors of each other, connected despite our differences.”
Here’s what Almazan wrote to me in an email about the album’s title:

The main message behind the photomosaic is one intended to unite people from all walks of life and provide them with some inspiration to strive towards happiness, whatever that might mean for any given individual. The piece “Rhizome” was initially inspired by a passage I read in one of Carl Jung’s books:
“Life has always seemed to me like a plant that lives on its rhizome. Its true life is invisible, hidden in the rhizome. The part that appears above ground lasts only a single summer. Then it withers away—an ephemeral apparition. When we think of the unending growth and decay of life and civilizations, we cannot escape the impression of absolute nullity. Yet I have never lost a sense of something that lives and endures underneath the eternal flux. What we see is the blossom, which passes. The rhizome remains.”
This in turn made me want to more deeply explore the idea of a rhizome. Botanically speaking, a rhizome is basically a subterranean stem. It contains deposits of reserve food material that give it the ability to produce shoots which emerge at the upper surface and root systems that go down to the soil below. The plant (or tree) is then able to survive unexpected, harsh conditions such as unfavorable seasonal weather underground to later re-appear as a healthy, new version of itself aboveground once conditions improve. Rhizomes make it possible for enormous communities of life to sprout from the same “root.” Pando, for example, also known as The Trembling Giant, is a cloned colony of a single aspen tree that, at an estimated 80,000 years old, is the single, oldest, most massive living organism on earth.
After learning all of this information and having had some fascinating conversations with people throughout the world about the different struggles they have undergone throughout their lives, I grew to embrace the idea of a rhizome because we are all experiencing extremely similar situations throughout this planet and are all connected somehow; we are all “shoots” from the same rhizome.

And here’s Almazan’s description of the process of creating the cover art:

It actually took a while for me to figure out what we were going to do as far as the cover. I was touring in Europe with Terence Blanchard [Almazan has been the pianist in Blanchard’s brilliant working band since 2007] so I went to a lot of museums and looked at a lot of art. Originally, I was thinking that we could incorporate some art that had something to do with nature, something along the lines of roots and trees. There were a couple of Cuban artists [Almazan was born in Havana] that I was considering. I really didn’t want it to be one of those typical covers with a picture of the artist, because it felt like that would go completely against the whole philosophy behind the music. It just kind of dawned on me one day; just came out of nowhere that we should do a photomosaic with pictures of all sorts of different people. I knew that I had seen that type of art before but I didn’t even really know what it was called. I kept thinking it was called a photo collage so it was difficult to communicate with people what it was that I actually wanted because of photo collage is a completely different thing.
I worked with Aestheticize Media, the same design team that helped me on my previous album, “Personalities.” When we did the math, we figured out that we needed approximately 600 pictures minimum for it to work. Everybody told me that I was crazy, and that if I wanted this to work it was my sole responsibility to make sure that: a) all the pictures were acquired legally; and b) that we fulfilled the quota with enough time to be able to create the artwork to deliver to iTunes and the CD manufacturing plant. To be perfectly honest, every single part of this project has been extremely challenging for me, but the photomosaic definitely stands out as one of the most daunting challenges I’ve ever taken on. We had to design a website specifically for people to upload their pictures onto and also to make sure that we had the written consent of everyone to legally use their images. I took it upon myself to email approximately 3,000 people to make sure we got enough images. And when I say emailed 3,000 people, I don’t mean that I sent out a mass email; I literally emailed 3,000 people over the course of a month, one by one. I never, ever, want to do that again.
It actually feels kind of therapeutic for me to write this down to someone that’s willing to hear it because I don’t think people understand just how much work it took to make this happen. In the end, it was a very gratifying endeavor because I really was extremely moved when I looked at the final outcome and realized that I had people on my team that supported me and understood what it is that the message is all about. I was told that the file that was used to make the artwork was so big that it took five minutes for the computer to load up and save just this one file.
The background, meaning the photomosaic portion of it, is a forest right outside of Toronto. The tree itself is actually a neighbor of mine. It lives on the side of the bike path right next to the Hudson River somewhere around 170th street, if I’m not mistaken. I absolutely love riding my bikes around the city and I saw that tree from time to time. When it came time to finding a tree, they kept sending me pictures but none of the trees really worked for me. So I went up there on my bike on a very, very cold winter day, took that picture myself.

Image: Courtesy of Fabian Almazan/Blue Note/ArtistShare

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