A young, prodigious Cuban born-and-raised pianist and composer recasts the folklore and culture of his homeland, filtered by the teachings of some of jazz’s greatest living avantists.
David Virelles travelled many miles both musically and physically in his twenty-nine years to reach a spot that justifies his recognition by the New York Times as one of the four young pianist on the rise. He studied classical music from age seven and branched out into other music forms, but his grandfather’s jazz record collection cast his true calling. He moved to Canada and sharpened his modern and Latin jazz skills under the tutelage of Jane Bunnett, got his music degree at Toronto’s Humber College and became the first recipient of the Oscar Peterson Prize. Later, he learned under such forward thinking musicians such as Steve Coleman, Stanley Cowell and Muhal Richard Abrams, moving to New York in 2009 to study composition under the great Henry Threadgill. Furthermore, he’s been working in the bands of Coleman, Chris Potter, Mark Turner and Ravi Coltrane.
Next week, Virelles follows up his debut release Motion (2007) with a real career-defining effort, Continuum, on Threadgill’s current home Pi Recordings. But is it truly career defining? I think so, and the investment Virelles put into this project speaks to the seriousness he’s put into this, an adamant determination to make an impression as an independently thinking artist, not just some good piano player and composer. He did do some field research: a trip back to Cuba last year sought to go beyond studying the music of his native country and understand better how that music is woven into the fabric of Cuban society. And when Virelles assembled his ensemble for these recordings, he chose carefully across cultures and generations to fashion the right blend that he was looking for. He tabbed Turner band mate Ben Street to play bass, but also brought in Cuban percussionist and poet Román Díaz, and Díaz skills in both areas are key in making that connection back to Cuban society within the music. Free jazz drumming giant Andrew Cyrille completes this unusual quartet. Cyrille’s legacy as an important avant garde figure as well as his Haitian roots — close to Cuba in both proximity and culture — makes him an easy fit for this endeavor. Alberto Lescay is also listed in the album credits, but he played no music; he instead worked with Virelles on a series of twenty paintings inspired by the music played on Continuum. Saxophonists Román Filiú and Mark Turner, and trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson guest on one track, “Our Birthright.”
Using the Cuban culture as the primary touchpoint doesn’t mean this is some Buena Vista Social Club record. “My goal is to strip everything down to its essence and bring expression to the fore,” reveals Virelles. So as Díaz recites poetry on “One” in the native tongue, the spooky percussion and the dissonant harmonium behind him at least provides the tenor of the words, even if you can’t understand the language he’s speaking. Several compositions percolate freely, making use of space, suspense and notes played like exhaustible, precious commodities. We don’t even hear metered time until the third track, “The Executioner,” and even then there’s an unusual pattern where Street’s bass pulse is going seemingly at half the speed of Cyrille’s subtly Caribbean rhythm. Virelles’ piano appears unmoved by the two currents, articulating on its own pace it first before eventually engaging more explicitly with the rhythm section. He adapts well to the horns brought in for “Our Birthright,” which add another dramatic element with waves of extended chords. Against the backdrop of a stately organ, “Manongo Pabio” is an exhibition for the amazing drumming of Cyrille, who attains both quicksilver, layered rhythms and discreet luminosity.
The ambition of infusing the rich cultural tapestry of Cuba with the loosely composed and performed music of New York progressive jazz and even in some instances, the highly ordered tenets of European classical music, is attained for David Virelles. Only he knows where he’ll go from here, but with Continuum, he’s already made his own personal mark on avant garde jazz.
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