David Virelles: Mystery, History

Pianist David Virelles investigates the fading folk traditions of his native Cuba

David Virelles (photo by Juan Hitters/ECM Records)

On a mild evening in mid-October, the Cuban-born pianist David Virelles was channeling Thelonious Monk at Jazz Standard in Manhattan. The occasion was Monk’s centennial, and Virelles had enlisted a couple of seasoned collaborators—the bassist Ben Street and the drummer Andrew Cyrille—to help him pay tribute to one of jazz’s chief architects. Though Virelles is just 34, he has internalized the lessons Monk imparted. His piano style is deceptively simple, concealing complex ideas about harmony and rhythm, and onstage he maintains a distant presence, letting his music speak for itself.

During his early set at the Standard, Virelles sat slightly hunched at the piano, calm and inscrutable as he improvised on one Monk staple after another, including “Eronel,” “Light Blue” and “Off Minor.” Wearing a red-and-black Senegalese dress shirt, he soloed percussively, hammering one key with his pointer finger and playing dissonant tone clusters with his knuckles, often in the lower end of the piano’s register. The set was, overall, quiet and minimalistic. But there was an underlying confidence to the performance, suggesting that Virelles could have delivered something flashier but, much like Monk, was more interested in conveying mystery and tension.

Virelles’ affinity for Monk may come as something of a surprise to those who have followed his recorded output. Since the 2012 release of his breakout second album, Continuum, on Pi Recordings, Virelles has established himself as one of the most promising young pianists in jazz—but one who approaches the music from a rarefied angle, exploring popular and folkloric rituals in Cuban music. His jazz is loose, atmospheric, incantational, rhythmically dense and almost sacred-sounding; it features the spoken-word poetry and drumming of Román Díaz, the veteran Cuban percussionist who has appeared on all of Virelles’ records since Continuum: Mbókò (2013), Antenna (2016) and the latest, Gnosis, released in September.

Collectively, those last three albums, released on ECM, work as a kind of sonic triptych outlining his evolution as he’s delved further into Cuban folkways. Mbókò is quiet and suggestive, with two bassists; Antenna, a 22-minute EP released on vinyl, is heavily electronic, with Cuban rap thrown in; and Gnosis is his most expansive to date, featuring string and reed accompaniment as well as classical flourishes. On each record, Virelles takes a few impressive solos that put him in touch with the jazz-piano idiom extending from Duke Ellington, Bud Powell and Cecil Taylor, all of whom have influenced him immensely. But for the most part, he conceals more than he reveals. “He can be a chameleon if he wants to, but he’s not,” said the Canadian saxophonist Jane Bunnett, a mentor who first met Virelles decades ago.

“He’s like a really great poet,” she adds. “Poets have command of all the words, but they don’t need to use a lot of them.”

David Virelles (photo by Vincent Oshin/ECM Records)
David Virelles (photo by Vincent Oshin/ECM Records)

Growing up in rural Santiago de Cuba in the 1980s and early ’90s, Virelles had limited access to American music—there were, in fact, no record stores, let alone computers. But at an early age, he managed to get his hands on some jazz recordings. First among them was a Monk album, which led him to Bud Powell and then other musicians in the extended jazz-piano family tree, such as Andrew Hill. Right away, Virelles was spellbound by jazz, not because it seemed exotic but because it had so much in common with the music of his homeland. “There was something about it that reminded me of a lot of the rhythms that I grew up listening to,” Virelles told me in early November at a coffee shop in Brooklyn, where he’s lived for the past six years. There was, for example, call and response, along with the concept of an underlying repeated rhythm, known in Afro-Cuban music as the clave.

“For me it was an obvious connection, first because of the way that things are being passed down from generation to generation,” Virelles said, “but also with the material itself. You see some of the same things that are idiomatic, and that are very much connected to culture.”

By his early teens, Virelles was so well versed in the jazz-piano tradition that he caught the eye of Bunnett, who, on one of several trips to Cuba with her husband, the trumpeter Larry Cramer, had ventured to Virelles’ conservatory to deliver instruments to the students. “We couldn’t believe this kid’s taste, and how young he was,” Bunnett recalled, adding that he had written out the names of piano players he admired—Herbie Hancock, Kenny Barron—on the walls of his bedroom. “How was he even hearing these performers?”

They called him “Bopero,” and invited him to Toronto for a two-week fellowship that extended indefinitely. During his time in Canada, Virelles immersed himself in jazz, often falling asleep at the piano as he practiced late into the night and transcribing Coleman Hawkins solos from memory as he watched TV. One of his most formative influences was the pianist Barry Harris, whom he met. Virelles respected that Harris, a repository of musical information who is as much a pedagogue as he is a performer, had developed a system to pass on the teachings of bebop to the next generation of jazz musicians, as though it were a Cuban oral tradition. “Barry was a real defining moment for me,” Virelles said.

Through Harris, Virelles came to the conclusion that all jazz musicians were, more or less, dealing with the same rhythmic, harmonic and improvisational concepts—but they were interpreting them from different vantage points. It was a realization that served him well when he moved in 2009 to New York, where he quickly established himself as a valuable sideman to such luminaries as Steve Coleman, Chris Potter, Henry Threadgill and Paul Motian, with whom Virelles played in a weeklong engagement at the Village Vanguard, in 2011, that would change his life.

“There was something about his playing that would immediately destroy everything that I played,” Virelles recalled of his performance with the late drummer, who died shortly after their run at the club. The young pianist, in his mid-to-late 20s at the time, realized that Motian’s mysterious style was pushing him to react in the moment, and so he loosened up to fit within the group. “I had to basically not let my fingers play certain things they were already doing because of so many years of conditioning,” Virelles said. But it wasn’t so much a matter of focusing on his own playing, Virelles explained, as it was taking information from his bandmates and figuring out a way to use their energy to fuel his output.

Such an approach has allowed Virelles to blend seamlessly into a number of contexts while maintaining his own unique touch. Chris Potter, who’s had Virelles play on two of his ECM albums, 2013’s The Sirens and this year’s The Dreamer Is the Dream, said he was originally attracted to the pianist because of his unusual background, which incorporates a slew of disparate influences into a coherent whole. “You hear pretty directly in his music how he’s kind of mixing these things up; I hadn’t heard anyone sound exactly that way,” Potter told me admiringly. “In the four or five years we’ve worked together, I’ve seen a lot of growth. The things I’ve seen him working on seem to keep gelling and reaching a new phase of maturity.”

The drummer Andrew Cyrille, with whom Virelles has performed and recorded several times over the past few years, believes the pianist is already “an entity unto himself.”

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Virelles has absorbed a ridiculous amount of musical information since he moved to New York nearly a decade ago, but the city isn’t his only source for growth. At least once a year, he returns to Cuba to visit family—his father, the singer José Aquiles, appeared on Virelles’ first album, Motion, from 2007—and conduct field research on sacred and secular rituals in Cuban music. He doesn’t expect his listeners to understand every reference in his music, mostly because much of the chanting and poetry is so abstruse to foreign ears that it would be impossible to translate, coming as it does from ancient traditions.

But that doesn’t bother him, either, because it isn’t his goal. “I’m not invested in taking the mystery out of everything I’ve heard John Coltrane play,” Virelles said, by way of elaboration, “and the fact that I don’t know 98 percent of what he’s playing doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy his music.”

For the full effect, though, Virelles believes his albums should be listened to from top to bottom, track one all the way through, though not necessarily in one sitting. That’s because his albums are actually long, continuous pieces, slightly chopped up in post-production. He only adds song titles because it is a convention of recording. “To me,” Virelles said of his latest release, “the album could have just been one track.”

Virelles’ belief speaks not to artistic stubbornness but to his total approach to music. His albums can operate on a cinematic level: Antenna is bookended by two clanging, percussion-heavy tracks, while Gnosis has moments of silence that go on surprisingly long, as in a horror movie. Ultimately, Virelles isn’t interested in creating albums that exist merely as collections of tunes. Rather, he’s interested in creating a mood, an ethos, an atmosphere that will linger in the listener’s mind after his music has been turned off. It’s a desire he has in common with Tomasz Stańko, the plangent Polish trumpeter, with whom Virelles has performed and recorded.

The two musicians first met when Virelles traveled to Poland, half a decade ago, for a small tour Stańko had arranged. The trumpeter was impressed by how quickly the pianist picked up on his melancholic brand of jazz, which is a tad darker than most American varieties. Stańko recalled in a phone interview from Poland that he sensed something ineffable in Virelles’ touch, a tinge of sadness and nostalgia that had something in common with fado, the Portuguese folk music, and the novels of Gabriel García Márquez.

If Virelles has reason to feel melancholic—or at least to convey that emotion in his music—it may be because the channels he is investigating, such as the folklore of the Cuban secret society Abakuá, are in many ways disappearing. Partly, he said, that’s because the elders who would typically pass on musical traditions from generation to generation are dying. “I’m concerned that information is not being transferred to us,” Virelles told me. “That’s one thing that, to me, is a little alarming.” He also believes that modern technology distracts from direct engagement with the past, and he feels that Cuban folklore is less and less a part of the collective consciousness in his homeland. By researching the musical traditions of his birthplace, he is trying to stay connected to the “value of creativity,” as he put it, through musical folklore, and so his music is as much an act of preservation as it is an act of musical expression.

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Looking ahead, Virelles said he is experimenting with compositions for different orchestral formats, but he was mostly mum on what exactly his next move will be. His records, he explained, are usually an extension of something else he is studying, so listeners can at least expect more engagement with Cuban folklore as he continues to make trips back to the Caribbean island to delve into past and present channels.

Aside from that, he is actively engaged with a number of groups in the New York area and, in a way, he is conducting a kind of field research onstage, absorbing information from his contemporaries and from his elders as he engages with and builds on the jazz idiom. “My experiences are always going to be with me,” Virelles said in his characteristically mystical manner. “I don’t throw away anything that I’ve ever lived or dealt with musically, because that’s part of who I am, and it’s going to come out no matter what.”