David Virelles interview

From 2014. The debut as a leader on ECM of Cuban pianist David Virelles, known for his appearances with Steve Coleman’s Reflex, and with Ravi Coltrane and Tomasz Stańko, as well as having appeared on Chris Potter’s highly acclaimed album The Sirens, …

Published: 27 Nov 2019. Updated: 3 years.

From 2014. The debut as a leader on ECM of Cuban pianist David Virelles, known for his appearances with Steve Coleman’s Reflex, and with Ravi Coltrane and Tomasz Stańko, as well as having appeared on Chris Potter’s highly acclaimed album The Sirens, and for his own band Continuum.

This first album of Virelles’ since having been signed to the label is Mbókò. At the weekend the 30-year-old was performing at the Very Very Threadgill festival in Harlem, and later appeared in Ravi Coltrane’s band at the Village Vanguard also in New York.

On Mbókò Virelles is joined by two bassists, fellow Stańko New York Quartet member bassist Morgan and ex-Branford Marsalis bassist Bob Hurst whose quintet Virelles also plays in; as well as Vijay Iyer drummer Marcus Gilmore (who played with Virelles in Reflex); and long-time Virelles colleague, the pianist’s fellow Cuban, percussionist/vocalist Román Díaz.

In one sense a deep folkloric concept, with the drum as a titanic presence and symbol at its heart, the pianist writes for Díaz within the architecture of the Abakuá tradition, a tradition that stretches far back to Africa and the Cross River region of Nigeria. Biankoméko drums are to the fore in the instrumentation, a set of four drums: one tall, three smaller, used in the centuries-old secret society ritual that involves the biankoméko accompanying Abakuá notables emerging from secret conclave to take part in extensive ceremonial.

The title of Virelles’ album Mbókò, glossed with a tripartite list of connotations: ‘fundament’; ‘sugar cane’; and ‘the Voice’, which all sees the album keep close to Abakuá culture the album’s subtitle further describing what we’re to hear as sacred music for piano, two basses, drum set and biankoméko Abakuá.

It’s a highly abstract original sound also attuned to avant garde immersive post-Coltrane traditions as well as Cuban music, and is very much a state-of the art approach from a compositional point of view, where folkloric traditions and broader improvised music come together in fresh ways.

Virelles, born in Santiago de Cuba in November 1983, is the son of a singer-songwriter father and symphony orchestra flautist mother. He became interested in jazz as a teenager and was later mentored by Canadian flautist Jane Bunnett. Virelles moved to study at the University of Toronto and Humber College and quickly emerged, becoming a winner of the first Oscar Peterson Prize, in more recent years moving to New York where he has studied composition with Henry Threadgill.

Speaking on the phone from his Brooklyn home talk begins about Threadgill very much at the forefront of Virelles’ mind. “I performed last night at a two-day festival they were doing in honour of Henry Threadgill and am getting ready to start a residency at the Village Vanguard with Ravi Coltrane. Henry is one of my favourite musicians of all time, and being able to learn and watch closely and be on terms as far as what he’s doing musically being there to gain insight as far as what he’s doing has had a huge impact on what I’m doing now. I first met Henry when I first got to New York. The original reason I moved to New York was to study with him. I received a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts in Canada where I lived for about eight years.”

Virelles describes how before moving to New York he played in saxophonist Jane Bunnett’s band. “She facilitated me going to Canada because I had met her in Cuba years before I came to Canada. She asked me to participate in one of her recording sessions she did down there in my home town when we first met and we stayed in touch. She had some projects in mind and different things she was working on, and she was very gracious and she invited me to Canada. When I was there I was taking private lessons with different people and studying, doing different things, playing gigs with her, and I decided to stay in Canada to pursue my career in music. I guess my introduction to the professional international music world was through Jane, so I’m also very grateful for that. She was open to all kinds of music from Cuba. She kind of had a background in experimental improvisation, and she had done recordings with Dewey Redman, Don Pullen, Jeanne Lee, and Billy Hart, that was her background. She developed an interest in Cuban music in general. We did a lot of different kinds of music, ranging from strict Cuban music recordings to ones with string quartet where I wrote a couple of arrangements. I have fond memories of that time and it was very crucial in my development as a musician.”

Virelles talks interestingly about notions of the avant garde. “I don’t really think of music in terms of avant garde or labels period. I think that some labels are designed to define things so they can be easily explained and better digested by people. But for example I think that Charlie Parker is an avant garde musician or someone like Art Tatum would be an avant garde musician in my standards because those musicians were avant garde in that sense of the word. They were innovators, they were the cutting edge of the time. Monk to me was an avant garde musician even though today he would be considered as a mainstream musician. Those people in their time were making music that was pretty much cutting edge. I am a student of folklore in different kinds of traditions, not only the Cuban tradition. I am a student of that and also what has happened here in the United States in improvised music. I am open to all kinds of music and I also study classical music, a little bit of Brazilian music, different things that have interested me at different points. For me the process and the craft of putting sound together, organising sound, that’s what interests me, and of course there are different approaches around the world. I’m interested in finding out what it is that makes people organise sound in a certain way. I’m pretty much open to anything, I like different kinds of music if I find it interesting for any reason. If I like it, that’s enough for me, I don’t think in terms of labels.”

Virelles chooses to use two bass players on Mbókò, and he has specific reasons for doing so. “I don’t really think of the bass as an extension of my left hand. I tend to think of the bass when it relates to function as a rhythmic pulse that adds a certain kind of dynamic where rhythm is concerned. In the case of this particular record I was interested in working with these two bassists, players I love and have played with, Robert Hurst and Thomas Morgan. I wanted to have them both in the project so the idea originally came from the desire to play with them and then I tried to figure out a way to integrate that kind of sound. That equated with what I’m trying to do and a couple of references from the past, one of them being John Coltrane’s recording Olé where he used two basses, and also a record from Andrew Hill where he used two basses [Blue Note album Smokestack, the two bassists being Richard Davis and Eddie Khan]. That wasn’t really my model even though those models were there of course, that Andrew record with two bassists, and Coltrane’s record and a couple of other examples from throughout history. But for me it was more about trying to get to a specific kind of texture and with two bassists I was going with a certain kind of sound like in Africa and in the Caribbean that give a sound of rhythmic propulsion. So I was trying to go after that. Bass is not there for the fine pitch kind of application. They’re not there for pitch definition as far as this project goes. The pieces on the record all come out of the piano, they’re piano pieces extended by these other instruments and how they behave and how they interact and of course a lot of rhythm language come from a specific rhythmic language that you find in Cuba folkloric tradition.”

Virelles is in considerable demand with other leading jazz musicians as a sideman and as well as playing in Ravi Coltrane’s band Tomasz Stánko sought Virelles out to join his band and the Cuban appears on the highly poetic double album Wisława. How this came about Virelles describes: “I was playing a week at the Village Vanguard with Chris Potter and Tomasz was working on a new record plotting what he was trying to do and putting a new band together, looking for new people to work with. He came to the Village Vanguard and he liked my playing and he asked me to join his band. I have to say that prior to meeting Tomasz I wasn’t completely familiar with his music, but I was happy that that connection happened. I believe that Tomasz found out about me from Manfred Eicher. I think Manfred mentioned my name to Tomasz and Tomasz tried to link up with me, and that’s how he came to be at the Vanguard.”

Virelles also played on Chris Potter’s brilliant record The Sirens in a very different role in tandem with fellow pianist Craig Taborn. “I was of course very honoured and surprised to hear from Chris. He basically wanted a specific kind of role from the two pianos. He wanted Craig to be the main pianist playing just piano and he wanted textural function from me using prepared piano and celeste. I got together with him and worked on different ways in which we could prepare the piano that would work with the music he wrote for the session so yeah that happened as a result of what he wanted. He asked me specifically for those kind of sounds to play celeste and harmonium and I tried to get my head around the concept and I tried to study and get ready for the session with what I thought I could bring to the mix. But that was conceptually Chris’ idea and it was me finding a way into the whole project. It was a pure joy to be able to participate and be part of that session, very nice.”

Mbókò was recorded at New York studio Avatar with Manfred Eicher producing and James Farber engineering. “Manfred has a very, very personal approach to producing and he was very respectful and careful with what we were trying to do. Let’s see how I can describe the process: once he was familiar with the sound he made suggestions from his point of view and all those years and experience and expertise to shape the session in a certain way and he let us just play the music as we had intended it and he shaped it in the direction that he envisioned for his label.”

Virelles had worked with engineer James Farber before on The Sirens and on Wisława and also a recording session with Danish guitarist Jakob Bro. The recording experience seemed to have been very natural. “It was very comfortable: they [Eicher and Farber] have been working together for years, so it was just a matter of going into the studio and laying down the music.”

On the pianist’s last recording with Continuum, and with long time collaborator Díaz Virelles explored notions of “the voice” side of Díaz’s musicianship but on Mbóko a different angle was favoured, he says. “On this recording I wanted to explore drums. In Afro-Cuban, African and Caribbean culture, in Haiti, and also in Brazil, the African traditions are still alive and the drums have a very important role, a specific role. Pretty much the guiding light for the record and what made me write those kind of compositions showcase that conversation and that communication through the drums.” It’s a conversation worth listening to closely – the work of a new master. Stephen Graham


Mulatu Astatke, Sketches of Ethiopia, Jazz Village

From 2013. That rare album that has the likely potential to appeal to both jazz and world music audiences, an even bigger audience still may well discover Astatke with this quite remarkable record. It has that everyman quality. The composer, …

Published: 27 Nov 2019. Updated: 4 years.

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From 2013. That rare album that has the likely potential to appeal to both jazz and world music audiences, an even bigger audience still may well discover Astatke with this quite remarkable record. It has that everyman quality. The composer, arranger and vibraphonist sees Sketches of Ethiopia as “talking about all of Ethiopia, from north to south, from east to west and even about the diaspora communities.” And it’s a complex affair with several fascinating layers.

Recorded in Addis, London, and in Paris with overdubs and mixes in various additional studios it was a complicated album to put together, but sounds nevertheless organic to experience as a listener. Featuring Mulatu’s arrangements stand-outs include closing track ‘Surma’, with Malian singer Fatoumata Diawara superb against an infectious near-reggae beat.

There’s a big London jazz scene presence on the album with luminaries in the Step Ahead band here including notably trumpeter Byron Wallen of Lineage, and Alexander Hawkins and John Edwards (both of Decoy); while lesser known, but no less effective, saxophonist James Arben, who also plays flute and other instruments, also contributes some additional arrangements.

The album opens with a composition of Either/Or saxophonist Russ Gershon’s, a paean to the griot-like azmari. The third track ‘Hager Fiker’ develops this prevailing Ethiopian traditional music aspect of the album, as does ‘Gumuz’ named for this particular Ethiopian and Sudanese people.

The album’s distinctive sound includes contributions from washint (a bamboo flute), six-string lyre the krar (beloved of the Azmari) and the masinko, a single-stringed lute. There’s also a good deal of modal and contrapuntal intricacy meticulously developed on ‘Assosa Derache’ and full-on extended improvising from the soloists including Astatke throughout the eight tracks.

Sketches of Ethiopia feels like an album where there is a conversation in full flow both rhythmically and melodically between the musicians operating as a collective, instinctively reaching out to their invisible listeners; and it’s accessible without being at all obvious. ‘Gumuz’ is rootsy and quite trippy with lead vocals from Tesfaye; while ‘Motherland Abay’ with cello and kora is the most chamber-like portion of the album, an ominous meditation. Yet overall Sketches of Ethiopia ultimately is a joyful noise, and an unalloyed delight at that. SG