David Virelles draws from Afro-Cuban traditions 

Roots Run Deep

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David Virelles draws from Afro-Cuban traditions
Solo Performances:
1 hour
May 25 at 7 p.m.
May 26 at 5 and 7 p.m.
Simons Center Recital Hall
54 St. Philip St.

w/ Román Díaz:
1 hour
May 27 at 5 and 7 p.m.
May 28 at 5 p.m.

Pianist David Virelles has one of the busiest performance schedules of this year's Spoleto festival, and that offers jazz fans a rare opportunity. Jazz is a musical genre that thrives on improvisational space, and Virelles will have plenty of room for that with his three solo performances.

"The opportunity of having multiple solo concerts in the same city is increasingly rare," Virelles says. "This type of residency can usually help open up the music, because it requires sustained focus. Working on and performing musical material for an extended period of time usually reveals many things about the music that one performance cannot."

There's an interesting alchemy at work in what Virelles does, combining the polyrhythmic percussion of Afro-Cuban music and the fiery exploration of modern jazz. On Chris Potter's album, The Dreamer is the Dream, Virelles, who left Cuba in 2001, creates a stunning series of set pieces, from a restless but muted tenor-sax-and-piano duel ("Heart In Hand") to a primal percussive rhythmic juggernaut ("Ilimba"), to a lithe, laid-back bluesy after-hours ballad (the title track) and beyond, covering a world of musical ground in only five tracks.

And he was able to follow that up with a tour of the music of Santiago de Cuba on 2018's Igbó Alákorin (The Singer's Grove) Vol. I & II, which celebrates both Cuban big-band music and the work of acclaimed Cuban composer and bandleader Antonio Maria Rameu.

Virelles has been a relentlessly prolific artist since 2001, serving as a sideman on envelope-pushing jazz albums by Henry Threadgill, Chris Potter, and Jane Bunnett (among others), and he's released six albums as a bandleader since 2008.

So perhaps it makes sense that, for his Spoleto performances, he's continuing his prolific streak, both by playing a lot of brand-new material and adding to his existing pieces through improvisation.

"I plan on performing a series of solo piano and duet pieces that I will be premiering at the festival," he says, "along with other works that have been part of my repertoire. In my case, there's little distinction between a written composition and an improvisation, as I see them both as different expressions of the same process. As improvisers, we train ourselves to deliver an improvisation with the same cohesiveness that a written composition would have. I see improvisation as composition being delivered spontaneously."

Virelles' other three shows will be duo performances featuring his mentor and a renowned percussionist Román Díaz.

Diaz is a master percussion player, a composer and a scholar who has been called a "living repository of Afro-Cuban music." His resume as a sideman is varied and impressive, featuring performances and recordings with Paquito D'Rivera, Giovanni Hidalgo, Chucho Valdés, and Wynton Marsalis, among others.

Diaz also spent time as a member of the seminal rumba ensemble Yoruba Andabo, and was himself mentored by the ensemble's founder Pancho Quinto, one of the most respected and renowned bandleaders and percussionists of the last 50 years. Rumba, which translates roughly to "party," is a loosely defined genre of Cuban music based on African music and dance traditions. Working together, Diaz and Quinto helped create a sound that defined rumba music in Cuba and all over the world.

"Román is without a doubt one of the greatest musicians I've had the honor to work with," Virelles says. "He's one of the most sophisticated listeners and has an incredible sound and feel on any instrument he plays. He's a master of several folkloric Afro Cuban musical traditions and brings an enormous amount of cultural knowledge and spirituality to any performance. I strive to achieve that same kind of depth in my playing, which is the reason I've wanted to collaborate with him since I arrived in New York."

Virelles is right; Diaz is a multifaceted player most notably on Cuban Batá drum, a double-headed drum used primarily for semi-religious purposes, and he can also set a rock-solid groove on congas, and it's a thrilling prospect for Virelles to duel his mentor on their respective instruments and creating rhythmic and melodic fireworks.

But what's most surprising about the music that Virelles and Diaz make is how fluently their modern jazz and Afro-Cuban styles mesh together, giving an exciting sense of rhythm to improvisational jazz and bringing some instrumental high-wire tension to the traditional dance music of Cuba. In their hands, these wildly different genres seem like natural companions.

"For me, there is a lot of common ground in these traditions," Virelles says. "They both stem out of Africa, and they both developed in the New World, where they intersected with many other elements."

In fact, he's quick to add that these two musical worlds have long enjoyed a marriage of sorts, from New Orleans to the music developed by Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo to the contributions of musicians like Chucho Valdés or Emiliano Salvador.

"This is the music of the Americas," he says, "which developed differently depending on the geographies and circumstances where it emerged from, but it shares very deep roots."


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