Román Filiú is an alto saxophonist and composer from Santiago de Cuba who has lived in New York since 2011. His father was a music-theory teacher and exposed him to a wide range of Cuban, Western classical, jazz and popular genres. Quarteria is nervous and intense. It has jarring stops and starts, glaring bright colors and many moving parts, and is hard to classify. Afro-Cuban rhythmic forms are recurrent but not dominant. The band is a septet with more North Americans (trumpeter Ralph Alessi, tenor saxophonist Dayna Stephens, bassist Matt Brewer, drummer Craig Weinrib) than Cubans (Filiú, pianist David Virelles, percussionist Yusnier Sanchez).
Filiú’s diverse influences include Henry Threadgill, and he played in Threadgill’s recent band Ensemble Double Up (as did Virelles and Weinrib). Quarteria reminds you of a Threadgill project, not only in its technical elements (arcane organizational principles, jagged counterpoint) but in its culture (the suspenseful sense that anything is possible). Filiú’s compositions, like Threadgill’s, provoke intellectual curiosity and challenge; unlike Threadgill’s, they often lack aesthetic realization. The strident harmonies of “Grass” will make you sit straight up in your chair. Intricate contrapuntal pieces like “Fulcanelli” and “Harina Con Arena” are all harsh voicings and blaring announcements. “Kaijufrem” is a contrivance that assigns a note to each letter of the title. Filiú’s tunes feel like exercises. Even so, they are clever, energetic and sometimes exciting.
What saves Quarteria are the exceptional players. They expertly execute Filiú’s difficult forms and maximize each tune’s musicality. In an album that is about ensemble form and not solos, the concise solos, when they come, are strong, including those of Filiú, who improvises in sharp ideas. Alessi and Stephens fill their moments vividly. Virelles shows once again that he is one of the special pianists to enter jazz in the new millennium. Every time he takes the lead on Quarteria, he lights it up.