David Virelles: A Finely Tuned Antenna

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My pick hit right now comes from pianist David Virelles, who I’ve been following closely and writing about for quite some time.

“Antenna” (ECM) is a 6-track, 22-minute EP released exclusively on vinyl and digital download. Drop what you’re doing and thinking and submit to this recording.

This dense swirl of sound from Virelles, who was born and raised in Santiago, Cuba and who has made Brooklyn, New York home, makes for riveting listening without any context at all. It would hard not to hear suggestions of ancient rhythms and rituals as well as urban modernism, of jazz and Afro-Cuban pedagogies as well as wild electro-acoustic dreams.

It’s all yet richer with some backstory, though…

As I wrote in The Wall Street Journal in 2013, Virelles is one of several Cuban musicians living in New York who have fully absorbed the environments of two islands—Cuba and Manhattan—and now exert influence through subtle innovations and bold ideas. Yet he fits no category or scene neatly; the arc of his music and his concept reflect a singular and uncompromising personal path (much like that of saxophonist Henry Threadgill, who Virelles moved to New York City to study with, and who plays on one track of this new EP.) Back in 2013, Virelles told me that his music is about “about how myths and otherworldly things lead to truth in my music and my life.”

In October, Virelles sat alongside percussionist Román Díaz, whose chants are on this new EP, and who has been elemental to Virelles’s recent music: They were my guests for a riveting discussion, “History, Mystery and Modernism,” within a four-part series I presented at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem called “NYC: The Afro-Cuban Beat.” The series was meant to explore the ways in which Cuban musicians and traditions course through New York City’s sound. The conversation with Virelles and Diaz was intended to discuss and demonstrate how musicology, mysticism and Cuban culture combine in their music.

At one point, Virelles sat down at the piano and played two Cuban pieces of historical significance: “Las Alturas de Simpson,” by Miguel Faílde, and “Tres Lindas Cubanas,” by Antonio María Romeu. He demonstrated how these would have sounded around the time they were composed and then played some variations in approach in the decades since.

This past Friday night, during a release party for “Antenna” at Manhattan’s le Poisson Rouge, Virelles was joined by drummer Marcus Gilmore, who is a primary collaborator for the new release, and briefly by guitarist Rafiq Bhatia, who is also among the cast. There was one section, late in the set, during which Virelles played solo piano improvisations built on a Southeastern Cuban rhythms. This was breathtaking in and of itself, and yet it was something like a palette cleanser in between the dense thicket of rhythms and the tangle of acoustic piano and electronic samples that dominated the set. Here, Gilmore’s live drumming often responded to Virelles’s manipulations of sampled sounds, which set Virelles off in new directions too. The music channeled the best organic qualities of ritual drums and chants and of modern electro-acoustic improvisation. During one opening piece, what sounded like a group of drummers was actually a sample of a single drum manipulated in real time through a MIDI controller. The effect was simultaneously grounding (as with any chants and drum patterns) and disorienting (since the sources of patterns were always unclear, and they were subtly shifting).

Good as that live set was, the new recording presents an ever more compelling soundscape. “This album is unlike any I’ve made before,” Virelles explained. “I wanted the music to have the sound and feel of traditional Afro-Cuban rhythms, but generated and deconstructed electronically, so that I could make new, very different use out of those elements.”

This new music represents years of dedicated study of the rhythms and rituals of Virelles’s hometown, Santiago, and a simultaneous immersion in New York City’s cutting-edge scene. It’s about reverence for master drummers and their historical function as well as an imaginary futuristic drum corps, Los Seres, made up of sounds programmed by Virelles.

It sounds like the beginning of something—something I can’t and wouldn’t want to name, but that I’d like to hear more of.

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