Igbó Alákọrin feels at once like the most conservative and most daring album of David Virelles’ career. The pianist’s Afro-Cuban lineage has been an important influence in his previous works, with indigenous percussion and incantations adding depth and emotion to avant-garde dissonance and improvisation. Igbó Alákọrin, on the other hand, is meant to be a doggedly faithful distillation of the early 20th-century musical roots of Virelles’ birthplace in Santiago de Cuba.
Volume I introduces Orquesta Luz de Oriente, a semi-big band whose mixture of Santiago’s respected elders and promising newcomers is reflected by the presence of Virelles’ father Jose in the chorus and his younger brother Abel on trumpet. The ensemble is based on the similarly-sized Chepin-Choven Orchestra from Santiago, which put its own signature on styles like son, trouva, and pregón in the 1930s and ’40s. Virelles does a masterful job varying the assortment of genres and soloists while mostly holding true to the galvanizing spirit of the original arrangements. The notion of a “singer’s grove” is embodied by the contrasting vocalists. Emilio Despaigne Robert has an exhortatory delivery akin to African griots like Selif Keita, and shines on pregón or “street vendor” songs like “El Rayaero.” Alejandro Almenares, himself the son of a legendary trouvavocalist, sings with a wistfulness reminiscent of Tony Bennett. Volume II showcases the danzónes of Antonio Maria Romeu (1876-1955), with five duets featuring Virelles and Rafael Abalos on guiro, a gourd-like percussion instrument. Virelles is rapturous on these songs.
In the liner notes, Virelles describes Igbó Alákọrin as “another step in my pursuit to understand the essence of music, beyond styles or vocabularies.” That pure and simple intent is a radical gambit. A successful one, too, because this is essential music.