Born In Cuba: David Virelles

by Martin Longley –

It’s around two years since the Cuban pianist David Virelles released his first album on the ECM label, Mbókò delving into the ritualistic traditions of his native Cuban music, as well as filtering these through the modernistic compositional sensibilities of a player who has subsequently been immersed in the jazz terrain mapped out by Stateside players such as Steve Coleman and Henry Threadgill. The resultant blend finds Virelles developing his own style, in a retro-futuristic fashion.


David Virelles (Photo: Juan Hitters)

I interviewed the pianist once he’d arrived back in his current home of New York City, following a European tour with reedsman Chris Potter, where Virelles plays another kind of modernistic jazz, this time immersed in the mainstream post-bebop tradition. Two years on from the album release, the Mbókò material remains a vital force within the Virelles songbook, the combo now operating as a quartet, without its original two-bass line-up.

Virelles will be joined in Moers this Sunday by bassist Thomas Morgan, drummer Eric McPherson and percussionist and vocalist Román Diaz. This latter player’s presence is particularly potent, as he brings along an element of hardcore Cuban santería ritual, voice and specialised biankoméko drum-set united like a single instrument.

The quartet have material that they recorded during the album sessions, which didn’t ultimately appear on disc, and they also have additional pieces composed since the release, pieces which haven’t yet been recorded. So, the potential pool of tunes for Sunday’s set is deep.

“We also improvise in the moment,” says Virelles. “So, it’s a combination of all that. We won’t do the programme how you hear it on the album. For me, there’s a difference between the presentation of music in an album, and the presentation of music in a live setting. I do what I believe is suited for the listening experience.”

Virelles has been recording during recent months, preparing his next ECM release. These sessions have involved various permutations of his regular personnel, reflecting the occasional gigs that he’s been playing in a duo or trio formation. Virelles is otherwise quite cagey about the contents, as they haven’t yet been finalised by ECM.

“Everybody brings their own interpretation,” he elaborates. “Based on what I can describe to them. All of us have played together as a group, but also individually, in other bands. The band is modular.”


Thomas Morgan, David Virelles, Marcus Gilmore, Román Díaz (Photo: John Rogers)

Virelles composes the material, which on the last album, possessed a strong conceptual thrust. When he delivers it to his players, they are given some interpretative leeway. “It’s a very organic process, because of the way that they absorb the music,” Virelles continues. “They go about it very intuitively, as a combination of sounds, with everyone else, not just their own part, but in relationship with what’s happening as an ensemble. I don’t think there is complete freedom. There are certain patterns, and certain things that we get into, and they are a part of us. Everything that I do is meticulously planned, and conceived beforehand. I think thoroughly about making a statement, as an artist, with my music.”

When Virelles attended music school in Cuba, he was ostensibly studying Western classical music, but the actual environment included attention being paid to Cuban popular and folkloric musics. At least this was the case when Virelles was growing up. “My parents are musicians. My father does something called nueva trova, a style from eastern Cuba. My mother was a flute teacher, and player with the symphony. I grew up with that, and all their friends were artists, musicians, poets, dancers, so I was surrounded by all kinds of music: American, Brazilian, Cuban.”

Funnily enough, there was not so much jazz at this early stage. That influence arrived a bit later. “It’s a culture where music is a fundamental part of everything that’s happening. I grew up in that environment. I think that’s reflected in my music. Even though I went to a classical music school, I learnt about jazz outside of school…”

(Featured Image: David Virelles by John Rogers)

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