Cuba is clearly a country of pianists, or at least it’s mainly 88-key specialists from this Caribbean island who are being discovered one after the other in the USA and Europe, where they are making careers.
From the veteran Chucho Valdés (himself the son of pianist Bebo Valdés) to the younger David Virelles (he’ll be 40 in November 2023), not forgetting the sixty-something Gonzalo Rubalcaba, the slightly younger Ramon Valle and Omar Sosa and the almost-fifties Aruan Ortiz and Roberto Fonseca, Cuba offers us a wide range of stylists, all very different from one another.
What links these musicians together, apart from their Caribbean origins, is the fact that they have generally learned to play their instrument in parallel with a study of traditional and/or classical percussion. It should be remembered that in classical percussion classes at conservatories, the piano, like the marimba for example, is considered a percussion instrument, which it is technically. Our Cuban pianists are therefore generally great rhythmicists, which does not prevent most of them from also being great melodists.
David Virelles also has the distinction – like Aruan Ortiz – of having studied in the USA with elders such as drummer Andrew Cyrille, saxophonist/flautist Henry Threadgill and saxophonist Steve Coleman, all of whom are also composers.
Virelles has then a solid jazz culture and is not one to indulge in Latin jazz clichés : no “Besame Mucho” or “Peanut Vendor” (“el manisero” in Spanish) in his repertoire!
The present CD, his first for the Zurich-based Intakt label (after two others for the American Pi Records and three for the German ECM), is therefore composed of themes from his own pen, with the exception of a track by Enrique Bonne Castillo, a composer of traditional music who, like Virelles, hails from the city of Santiago de Cuba and is more than half a century his senior. This is also Virelles‘ first trio album, and not the least trio because he has chosen to be accompanied by Ben Street and Eric McPherson, a first-rate rhythmic pair whose two members are among New York’s musical elite.
What is immediately striking about “Carta” is the impressive rhythmic foundation of the piano and, more generally, of the trio.
Virelles plunges his chords deep into the beat, with his two partners backing him up with vigor and subtlety. Another characteristic of this trio is its great sense of space, which leaves plenty of room for the brief silences that punctuate the lyrical flights. In the first piece, the pianist occupies mostly the mid-range of the keyboard, occasionally allowing himself rapid incursions into the treble.
The second, the only theme that’s not from his pen, unfurls a melody of lush harmonies and constant dynamic contrasts. This is followed by a short, dreamy track, and then by one in which the drums lead the dance on a repetitive, medium-tempo spinning, in which typically Cuban melodic and rhythmic snatches emerge. “Carta“, the title theme, explores territories dominated by percussive sound work and the majestic slowness of keyboard playing. This is followed by two lively melodies in medium and then slow tempo, with a distinctly Latin feel, like a Caribbean breath at three-quarters of the program. Virelles is clearly an inspired melodist, and his two partners follow him in fine style, drawing shimmering sonorities from their instruments. The moving penultimate theme sees the keyboard alternate between flattened chords and adventurous arpeggios, sometimes piano, sometimes forte, against a background of abundant, crackling drums.
The CD closes with a majestic ballad that gives ample space to silence. All in all, this is a recording full of contrasts and great maturity. It’s a CD we’ll be glad to put on the turntable again and again, as its haunting charm grows stronger with every listen.
David Virelles: piano, composition
Ben Street: doublebass
Eric McPherson: drums and percussion
Carta was released by Intakt Records in May 2023.
©Photos Ogate, @ Vengeleder Studios.