Ultramodernist Cuban pianist David Virelles digs deep into his Santiago roots

David Virelles (photo: Rómulo Sans)

David Virelles (photo: Rómulo Sans)

It's hard to think of a Cuban pianist since the ascent of Chucho Valdés that's been more original or innovative than David Virelles, a musician who's consistently experimented with the music of his homeland in fascinating ways. He's proven himself a superb improviser through his work with forward-looking “jazz” musicians like Chris Potter, Henry Threadgill, and Tomasz Stanko, but it's been on his own that he's forged brilliant new syncretic modes. His 2012 album Continuum (Pi) blew me away, melding ideas gleaned from early modernist pianists like Cecil Taylor and Andrew Hill with ritualistic rhythmic modes of Cuba, particularly Abakua music. The playing of the powerful conguero Román Díaz meshed beautifully with the wide-open kit drumming of Andrew Cyrille, with the former adding gripping chanted vocals.

Since then Virelles has refined his singular hybrid, reaching a new high-water mark last year with Gnosis (ECM), a set of originals that further stretched a marriage of traditional rhythm with translucent, eerie arrangements and structures closer to modern classical music than anything focused on the dance floor or ritual. At times, the music suggests what an imaginary Art Ensemble of Havana may have sounded like. Below you can check out one of that album's most spellbinding pieces, "Tierra," where Virelles seamlessly weds probing lines and improvisation that elude easy categorization with calmly percolating grooves--shaped by Díaz and members of Nosotros Ensemble--with dark-hued accents of flute, horns, and strings. It's a subtle masterpiece that I'm still getting my head around.

Since the pianist has appeared so rigorously committed to building new forms from his roots, drifting further and further from any recognizable quotations or references (at least to a Yankee like me), I was shocked to hear his fantastic new album Igbó Alákorin (The Singer's Grove) Vol. I and II (Pi), which makes an unexpected u-turn. Apparently Virelles has been yearning to salute lesser-known musicians from native Santiago de Cuba for quite a long time, and the two-part recording makes a deep, convincing dive into that region's big band sound from the 1930s as well as celebrating the compositions of the early 20th century composer and pianist Antonio María Romeu.

The first nine-tracks are magnificently brassy and rhythmically fierce, resplendent in a dance band sound that's simultaneously old-fashioned and fresh. The tunes were written by local composers including Enrique Bonne (who invented the now-ubiquitous pilón rhythm), Electo Rosell Chepín, and Mariano Mercerón--none of whom I was familiar with, but based on the pieces tackled here, certainly deserve greater recognition. The superb band includes younger musicians including the reedist Román Filiú, who's become an important figure on the New York jazz scene and David's younger, trumpet-playing brother Abel, and veterans like percussionist Rafael Ábalos and bassist José Ángel Martínez (who's worked and recorded with Buena Vista Social Club guitarist Eliades Ochoa).

Two storied vocalists deliver stunning performances throughout: Emilio Despaigne Robert of the Santiago band Los Jubilados, and Alejandro Almenares--son of trova legend Ángel--who also adds some requinto guitar, including a tender duo performance of Sindo Garay's "Ojos de Sirena," with the pianist. Those nine tracks explore a variety of styles, including danzón Orientale, bolero, trova and chepinsón, but the general tenor of the music is gloriously soulful, elegant, and driving that I don't have much interest in parsing such particulars. While the general complexion feels old-school, Virelles doesn't shy away from odd harmonies, a fact made abundantly clear by his opening rollercoaster salvo on his sole original composition here, "Sube la Loma, Compay," which eventually is submerged within pointillistic horn stabs and a cushion of seductive polyrhythm. It highlights the fact that Virelles can't tear himself away from the future, even when essaying his roots with almost scholarly exactitude.

The five pieces by Romeu, all danzónes, strip things down to only Virelles and guiro player Ábalos--in the original style of the composer. Here, Virelles taps into a much older sensibility--the refined approach where Cuba's European roots rang out much louder--but his improvisational snap is as sharp as ever. It's almost as if the pianist and the percussionist are engaging in an elegant dance, meticulously blending lines with the ease of lovers who can anticipate one another's every move. Below you can hear the irresistible opening track, Chepín's "Bodas de Oro."

Today's playlist:

Various artists, Brand New Wayo: Funk, Fast Times & Nigerian Boogie Badness 1979-1983 (Comb & Razor)

John McGuire, Works for Instruments (Edition RZ)

Johnny Mbizo Dyani, Rejoice/Together (Cadillac)

Boston Symphony Orchestra, Béla Bartok: Concerto for Percussion/Music for Strings, Percussion & Celesta (Pentatone)

Bertrand Denzler/Antonin Gerbal/Axel Dörner, Le Ring (Confront)