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THIRTY-FIVE-year-old pianist David Virelles started studying classical piano at seven in a Cuban household where music was everywhere — his father was a singer and songwriter and his mother played flute in the Santiago de Cuba Orchestra.
From a young age, he was listening to US jazz piano masters like Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell and his prodigious musical skill was spotted by visiting Canadian bandleader Jane Bunnett, who invited him to Canada. There he played and recorded with her Spirits of Havana band before studying in New York with avant-garde saxophonist Henry Threadgill and playing with some prominent jazz figures like hornmen Tomasz Stanko and Steve Coleman.
By 2012 he was recording his album Continuum as part of a remarkable quartet, including veteran drummer Andrew Cyrille, New York bassist Ben Street and Cuban percussionist and folkloric poet Roman Diaz, a drummer steeped in Cuban traditions which include the rituals of the Africa-rooted Abakua.
In the album's opener, One, the two percussionists strike, pound and caress below Diaz's words, an amalgam of four languages from Europe, Africa and the Caribbean — Spanish, Karabali, Kongo and Yoruba-Lucumi. Virelles’s piano marches out on El Brujo and the Pyramid beside Street’s plangent bass, creating melody from improvisation, while The Executioner is strident and angular, the drums breathing and gasping inside its chimes.
There are three guest horns on Our Birthright — saxophonists Mark Turner and Roman Filiu and young Californian trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson. Virelles begins with solo piano, Diaz’s fusion of languages is like another instrument and the horn ensemble is free and improvised, with Finlayson’s sharp-edged notes cutting through. Virelles’s chords create an earth rhythm, delving and deep.
Diaz’s rustling percussion on Spectral and Cyrille’s tunnelling toms surround the piano’’s echoing notes and Unseen Mother also has a ghostly timbre. The very brief Short Story for Piano stresses the hidden and unknown sonic narratives inside Virelles’s themes, while A Celebration Circa 1836 emphasises how much this music combines history, tradition, national culture and the avant garde. Virelles’s forthright keys strike into and beyond the past of Diaz’s incessantly tapping blocks.
His piano on Threefold is almost as slow as it gets, bringing to mind some of Bud Powell’s live tracks in Stockholm in 1962 on the Budism albums, made towards the end of his life, and there is a similar sense of an uncanny beauty in the serenity radiating mysteriously from virtual stillness.
Virelles turns to Wurlitzer organ on Manongo Pablo, with Cyrille’s drums relentless. Diaz’s coalescence of words throughout this astonishing record is a summation of interweaving syncretisms — urban north America, the earth and sea of Haiti and the Caribbean, the languages of displaced Africa and the Cuba of dreams and reality. All are there and all speak.
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