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David Virelles: Mystery, History

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

David Virelles (photo by Juan Hitters/ECM Records)
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.

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