Home Interviews In Conversation with Pianist, Composer David Virelles

In Conversation with Pianist, Composer David Virelles


Born and raised in Cuba, pianist and composer David Virelles grew up in a musical family, his father a renowned singer-songwriter and his mother a flutist in the Santiago de Cuba Symphony. He studied classical music at age seven and being exposed to the wide array of musical forms in the island. Eventually, David discovered his grandfather’s jazz collection and also became interested in that tradition.

In 2001, he left for Canada as a protégé of Canadian musician Jane Bunnett, with whom he recorded several albums (two Grammy nominated), toured and collaborated with on some projects.

He studied privately with pianist Barry Harris and has also studied composition with the influential composer Henry Threadgill, whose vision has a profound impact on Virelles’ musical outlook.

David has performed and/or recorded with: Henry Threadgill, Ravi Coltrane, Tomasz Stanko, Dewey Redman, Steve Coleman and Five Elements, Sam Rivers, Andrew Cyrille, Hermeto Pascoal, José Luis Quintana “Changuito”, Stanley Cowell, Horacio “El Negro” Hernández, Mark Turner, Paul Motian, Chris Potter, David Binney, Jane Bunnett and “Spirits of Havana”, Miguel Zenón, Cuban visual artist Alberto Lescay, Jon Hendricks, Wadada Leo Smith, Milford Graves, among others.

In 2003, he became the first recipient of the Oscar Peterson prize, presented by Peterson himself while Virelles was still a student at Humber College in Toronto. His debut album Motion was released in 2007 on the label Justin Time, after winning the Grand Prix de Jazz Award at the Montréal Jazz Festival.

David’s album Continuum, which featured bassist Ben Street, legendary drummer Andrew Cyrille and percussionist Román Díaz, garnered critical success worldwide, having been selected “Best of the Year 2012″ by the New York Times.

More recently, David released Mbókò – Sacred Music for Piano, Two Basses, Drum Set and Biankoméko Abakuá, featuring drummer Marcus Gilmore, bassists Thomas Morgan and Robert Hurst and Román Díaz. The music draws its inspiration from the Carabalí culture and the Abakuá society and continues the conversation that began with Continuum.

David Virelles is growingly in demand in the New York music scene as a solo-artist and a sideman.


Tomas Peña: Your previous recording titled Continuum drew from visual art, Afro-Cuban folklore, religion, poetry, and magic. Mbókò draws from the Carabalí culture and the Abakuá society. Does Mbókò pick up where Continuum left off?

David Virelles: Yes, Mbókò is a continuation of Continuum, which was originally intended to be an Abakuá project, but it’s more explicit.

TP: What drew you to the subject?

DV: I’ve always been interested in the ritual aspect of music. Also, I felt the need to reassess things from a musical standpoint so I dug deep into things that I’m interested in and it led me to that. What drew me to the subject was my interest in the culture. Also, when I arrived in New York (2009), I met Henry Threadgill, Milford Graves, Andrew Cyrille, Muhal Richard Abrams and Román Díaz, all who I consider creators of the music of this nature. Having access to people that have an interest in this musical direction has been very important.

TP: Did not being an initiate, or insider pose problems for you in terms of accessing information?

DV: I’m interested in the relationship between the ritual and the metaphysical aspects of the music and how it affects people’s psyche and consciousness. I don’t feel I have to be a participant to tap into that. I’m learning about a vast culture with a vast history and that in it self is very inspiring. I’m not trying to recreate Abakuá music. I’m observing how the elements behave and interact within the culture and I’m analyzing how that works so I can bring it to the context of my music.

Painter Wifredo Lam, composers Amadeo Roldán and Alejandro García Caturla and author and musicologist Alejo Carpentier are models for me because they incorporated (Afro-Cuban) elements into their work, yet they never lost sight of their vision. Roldán and Caturla were not recreating folkloric music or chants I know; they were making original art that came out of different traditions. They acknowledge the folkloric presence in their work.

TP: The word, Mbókò has several meanings: “fundament,” “sugar cane,” “the voice.” Which meaning resonates with you?

DV: The Divine Voice and Fundament (Foundation). It also represents a quest for higher consciousness.

TP: How does the term, “sacred,” apply to this project?

DV: The music is sacred because of its function and its intent and because of what is being explored, the history and tradition of the material. There’s a long and storied lineage of sacred music, from Bach to Duke Ellington to John and Alice Coltrane. In Cuba we have a so-called classical sacred tradition, alongside the folkloric ones. For example, musician and composer Esteban Salas wrote music for the church and the liturgy. One could say his musical aesthetic came out of Europe, but that he is Cuban set him apart. So, he’s also a model, someone making music with that function. I’m inspired by the concept and direction of his music. With Mbókò, the main inspiration was folklore, Abakuá specifically. I consider the program in the album to have a sacred aspiration because of the function of the biankoméko orchestra, which isn’t used much outside of the ritual context. When you have someone like Román Díaz playing the drums, anything he plays I consider sacred because he’s dealing with a very specific language that comes out of that environment.

(Interviewer’s Notes: Esteban Salas was a priest and an outstanding composer of the American baroque with notable elements of classicism. His vast musical catalogue comprises seven masses, seven-teen Hail Maries and motets, psalms, anthems, religious plays, and gorgeous carols, both religious and profanes. Source: Excerpt from Caribbean News Digital, 2014 by Frank Perez Alvarez).

TP: You describe Román Diaz as, “the soul” of the project.

DV: Yes, because of what he brings musically and culturally. He’s also a titleholder in the Abakuá tradition, a specialist of the largest drum in the four-drum biankoméko kit, the improvising bonkó enchemiyá, and its language. Román is a master percussionist and a carrier of the culture.

TP: I admire Román’s adventurous nature and the manner in which he draws inspiration from disparate sources and incorporates it into his work. He is unique in that respect, for someone of his stature.

DV: He’s been doing that since his early days. Check out some of the stuff he did with Yoruba Andabo and you’ll see he was already there. When he came to New York, he got with people from different lineages. He’s incorporating that into other things abstract from his background, things that might not be directly related but he makes them come together. Improvised music in the U.S. has a shared history with Cuba. Román understands the relationship and developing both, and he brings those elements together in a special way.

TP: You and Román have developed a “language” of your own. Obviously, it is the fact that you have collaborated in the past on projects such as Continuum, El Gallo Místico, etc.

DV: It’s important to develop a rapport. The musicians that participate in Mbókò and Continuum are people I developed relationships with, and the projects grew out of that. For example, before Román came to the Continuum project I was playing trio gigs with Ben Street and Andrew Cyrille. When I brought Román in, he fit perfectly. It’s the same with this project. I’ve played with Thomas Morgan and Robert Hurst on different projects. So, the projects I’ve done are an extension of the relationships I’ve developed over the years and a snapshot of the relationships at a certain point in time.

TP: Tell me about the band and the configuration.

DV: I knew I wanted to have the biankoméko because I love the sound and the rhythms. Many people are curious about why I chose two basses. I wanted to work with Thomas and Robert. There are two tracks where I ask the bassists to reflect on, but not imitate, for example, the sound of the marímbula (a large, resonating wooden box with tuned metal keys). On some tracks, I had Robert play a foundational role, and Thomas added counterpoint, texture and color. Other times, it was the reverse. Marcus Gilmore has a very orchestral approach to playing the drums. I love his precision and the way he deals with different rhythms and colors. We’ve played together in various situations. He comes from a family with a deep musical history; he is the grandson of one of the founding fathers of modern drumming, Roy Haynes.

TP: Let’s review the tracks. Wind Rose and The Scribe is a conversation between the piano and Roman on the bonkó.

DV: The bonkó has a very specific vocabulary. Different rhythms mean different things. For example, Román will play a phrase that has a specific meaning in the culture, and it brings out certain energies. Wind Rose opens the way for the rest of the album.

The Scribe (Tratado de Mpegó) deals with the titleholder in the society and graphics (symbols) as sound. I was interested in exploring someone whose role is to create vibrations through graphics.

Biankoméko is the drum ensemble, which consists of four drums, a bell, and wooden sticks. The tune specifically deals with the rhythms that come out of the ensemble. The piano figure also comes out of those rhythms and the rhythmic vocabulary comes out of the tradition. It’s the one track that is the most literal in terms of Abakuá musical information.

Antillais (A Quintín Bandera) Supposedly there were two structures in the Cuban army, the military, and a religious structure. Quintín Bandera was a spiritual leader. Cubans suffered many hardships. I would imagine they had to get into a spiritual zone to deal with the atrocities of war and what was happening in the country. Coming from Santiago de Cuba and being proud of my heritage, I wanted to acknowledge Quintín Bandera, who also hails from Santiago. You’ll notice the tune has an Oriente flavor.

(Interviewer’s Notes: A reference to General José Quintín Bandera Betancourt (1846 – 1906), a military leader of the Cuban insurrection against the Spanish during the Cuban War of Independence. In 1906, Bandera, “himself almost a full-blooded Negro,” led an army of insurgents toward Havana, and was killed near Punta Brava, a village close to Havana.)

TP: Seven, Through the Divination Horn, where the number 7, which played a prominent role in Continuum, resurfaces.

DV: This composition is related to several kinds of expression through the number. The composition contains musical phrases set up in groupings of three and four. Depending on the arrangement, the three or four might come in first, or the phrases repeat and weave in and out. Also, it opens with the ekón bell, which I wanted to feature.

Stories Waiting to be Told – That’s me thinking to myself, how will these traditions move and evolve through time. TransmissionThat’s about the transmission of forces through musical instruments and sound. The Highest One – That’s a hard one to explain. The title concerns the highest form of vibration, but it also alludes to other things, movies and soap operas from colonial Cuba in the 1800s and the writings of Lydia Cabrera. The tune is elusive.

TP: The recording closes with a tribute to Cuban vocalist, guitarist, composer, María Teresa Vera.

DV: She was important for many reasons. She brought Abakuá musical elements into the secular realm. She performed tunes with Abakuá lyrics (Ex: Los Cantares del Abakuá). The tune has the clave ñáñiga as an underlying rhythm, which I’m told Ignacio Piñeiro introduced to the music, with whom Vera had a working relationship.

TP: When Continuum was released, I was surprised by the fact that, critics and listeners grasped the concept. I’m speculating that the spiritual and communal nature of the music drew people in and seduced them into to listen to the recording from start to finish.

DV: Right. Listening to one track will not give you the full picture.

TP: Also, unlike Continuum, where Roman guides the listener, here the drum does the “talking.”

DV: Yes, that distinction was intentional.

TP: Creatively and commercially speaking, the project is a bold move.

DV: (Laughs) My goal is to develop as a musician, and these projects I hope push me in the direction I want to go in, and I have no control over what the music will do once it gets out there; either people enjoy it or not. When Continuum came out, some people came up to me and said: “When I first heard the recording I didn’t know what you were doing. I was trying to figure out what you were trying to say.” Also, many people were taken aback because they thought it wasn’t as “pianistic” as it should be. People said things like, “It’s your recording, you’re the leader, you’re a piano player and there’s not a lot of piano playing on the album.” However, I considered Continuum to be pianistic in the sense of dealing with the instrument from a sonic standpoint. Also, I was thinking in terms of textures and structures and my function within the ensemble. I wasn’t thinking, “I am going to take a solo now.”

TP: The online publication All About Jazz sums the project up nicely, “Mbókò isn’t just an album that rewards repeat visits, it’s a recording that demands them. A single listen is more than enough to make clear that there’s something important going on here, as Virelles and his adept group create an hour-long journey of deeply felt spirituality, but Mbókò unveils far more with each and every spin.”

Artist Website: http://www.davidvirelles.com

A graduate of Empire State College with a dual major in journalism and Latin American studies, Editor-in-Chief Tomas Peña has spent years applying his knowledge and writing skills to the promotion of great musicians. A specialist in the crossroads between jazz and Latin music, Peña has written extensively on the subject. His writing appears on Latin Jazz Network; Chamber Music America magazine and numerous other publications.


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