David Virelles is a relatively young pianist, born and raised in Cuba, with a second recording that extremely interesting and ambitious but not easy to listen to with anything less than total concentration.
Continuum features an unusual quartet, and it’s fair to say up front that this music is best not thought of as “jazz”—but maybe not as anything else exactly either. The band is a conventional jazz trio of piano and keyboards, bass (Ben Street), and drums (the veteran inside-outside player Andrew Cyrille), supplemented by Roman Diaz playing traditional Cuban percussion and chanting in Spanish and other languages that feed into the Afro-Cuban tradition. The art being made here is nothing like the standard jazz set—tunes that feature improvising in between statements of the melody.
Instead, Continuum sets up systems of rhythm, texture, melody, and sometimes language. Most tracks are relatively brief, and the contrasts between “songs” and the sequencing of each statement create what feels like a story being told across the breadth of the collection.
Your ears are likely to travel over this music in a searching kind of way. I found myself transfixed by each track, at least for a while, as Virelles’s precise pianistic touch or his penchant for novel keyboard sounds (from a harmonium, a pump organ, and an electric Wurlitzer organ) drew me to riveting musical notions. As each idea takes hold, however, it also seems to let go. Themes are stated vaguely and then waft into the air. Structures are non-linear or not repeating. The hunt for connection is hard work.
A stand-out track, for instance, is “The Executioner”, the second-longest tune and what that provides some of the traditional pleasures of jazz. A highly syncopated piano theme is stated up front, with left-hand crashes offset by jazz splashes of chords in the right hand. Quickly, though, Virelles and Cyrille bring the dynamics much lower and a wandering and gentle theme (or possibly a variation on the first theme) arrives. Virelles improvises with a combination of delicate runs, jagged chordal patterns, and tremolo dynamic build-ups. Cyrille takes over for a traditionally free solo out of any set meter, after which the first theme returns, nearly exactly. But this is followed by Diaz coming in over the trio with some athletic chanting, which results in even more aggressive piano figures, a combination that seems to simply wither after a couple minutes.
The shorter tracks on Continuum tend to feature Virelles’ other organ sounds etching the air with color or a scratchy, eerie texture. “El Brujo and the Pyramid”, for example, features no chanting but starts with the shhhhhhh of a cymbal and then the rattling purr of electric organ, after which Virelles states a theme on piano that seems slight and hardly worth any soloing. But the song slowly becomes an interesting development. “A Celebration, Circa 1836” also begins with organ texture and Cyrille’s classic atmosphere, but it gets a jolt of clear percussion about a minute in that sets things whirling in circles—only to march in a straight line without much development.
Continuum is easiest to follow (and love) when the focus is firmly on the leader’s piano. “Short Story for Piano” has the logical movement of a classical etude lasting just over a minute, and “Royalty” set Virelles’s chanting left hand against percussion and a clear, cascading theme in the right hand. These tunes give the listener more sense of predictability—so they please more easily, I suppose.
But the heart of Continuum is in the tracks that are more elusive. The centerpiece would seem to be “Our Birthright”, which adds three horns to the mix and becomes a swirling flux of poetry, percussion, free blowing, and insistent piano rhythm. The sound of the band is compelling—the textures and the groove—and the performance has guts and thrill in core.
But if I’m being honest with myself, these performances leave me somewhat cold. I don’t know the Cuban folklore that’s being referenced, the poetry is lost in the language gap, and—somewhat conventional listener that I still am sometimes—I actually want the joys of some repetition, some theme and variation, some clarity.
I know in my head that David Virelles has developed a fascinating concept for Continuum, and I have no doubt that he is a talent to watch. I hear the riveting ghost of Cecil Taylor in his playing and the compositional influence of Henry Threadgill. With some luck, this disc will unfold for me more completely over time. It’s atmosphere and conception beg me to listen again.
But I suspect even my fifth or sixth listen will be a chore, like the first several. I wish you better luck because Virelles has something special. I think it’s still waiting to come out.