Though Cuban jazz pianist and composer DAVID VIRELLES incorporates the influences of American piano masters, he approaches jazz by exploring popular and folkloric rituals embedded in Cuban music. A New York City emigre, he has worked alongside Jane Bunnett, Steve Coleman, Henry Threadgill, and Chris Potter, among others.
In 2014, his lauded Mbókò appeared from ECM, followed by 2016’s Antenna EP. 2017’s Gnosis employed a quartet, the Nosotros Ensemble, a string trio, and a vocal chorus. He returned to Cuba to record Igbó Alákọrin (The Singer’s Grove) Vol. I & II.
for Pi Recordings. After winning the Herb Alpert Award for the Arts in 2021, he returned in 2022 with Nuna – also on Pi – a book of his solo piano compositions.
Born in Cuba in 1983, Virelles was raised in a musical family. His father was a professional singer and songwriter, and his mother was a Santiago de Cuba Symphony flutist. He began classical studies on the piano at the age of seven and was exposed to the wide variety of music performed on the island. After discovering his grandfather’s jazz collection as a teenager, Virelles’ musical life changed direction, and he began pursuing it passionately. At 18, he emigrated to Canada. He began musical studies at Toronto’s Hunter College and came under the mentorship of saxophonist Jane Bunnett. He played on several of her albums and toured with her Spirits of Havana.
While at Hunter, Virelles studied privately with pianist Barry Harris. In 2003, he was awarded the first Oscar Peterson Prize by the great pianist himself.
In 2009, after numerous visits to New York professionally, he relocated to the city and actively participated in its jazz scene. He gigged and recorded with musicians as varied as Wadada Leo Smith, Henry Threadgill, whom he also studied with and claimed as one of his great influences), Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez, Ravi Coltrane, Stanley Cowell, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Miguel Zenón, Hermeto Pascoal, and Sam Rivers, to name a few.
In 2008, Virelles issued Motion, his debut as a bandleader, on Justin Time. It was followed by Continuum for Pi Recordings in 2011. He first appeared on the ECM label as part of Chris Potter’s quintet on 2012’s The Sirens in 2012 and Tomas Stance’s New York Quartet on 2013’s Wislawa. Virelles signed to ECM later that year and recorded Mbókò, his debut for the label. His sidemen included Thomas Morgan, Robert Hurst, Marcus Gilmore, and Roman Diaz. It was widely celebrated as a pick on many publications’ year-end lists. The pianist/composer/producer took the unusual step of following it in late 2016 with Antenna, a six-track EP. The recording was created with cellist/electronicist Alexander Overington and included guest spots from Threadgill, Gilmore, Diaz, and the percussion ensemble Los Seres, among others. In 2017, Virelles realized the release of his large-scale work Gnosis, conceived three years earlier and received a live premier in 2015 jointly presented by The Music Gallery, Arraymusic, and Lula Music & Arts; it was recorded in New York a year later by Manfred Eicher. It speaks of transculturation, traditions, and the complex tapestry of Cuba’s sacred, secular, and ritualistic music. Its shapes and forms, however, reflect a contemporary player/leader thoroughly versed in the art of the improvisers. Virelles describes the varying instrumental interactions as “several families functioning within one unit: this dynamic symbolizes multicultural interaction.” The album was issued in September. That same year the pianist was voted Rising Jazz Pianist of the year in the Downbeat Critics poll.
In 2018 Virelles moved over to Pi Recordings to realize a career-long dream of documenting the under-sung musicians of his birthplace in Santiago de Cuba. After leaving Cuba in 2001, Virelles made periodic trips home. Each time he returned, he would seek out and study tradition with Santiago’s musical elders. He recruited these musicians for this project. Recorded at Santiago’s legendary EGREM studios, he cut an album comprised of two distinct projects: Vol. I: David Virelles Introduces Orquesta Luz deOriente was conceived for a big band of seasoned veterans and showcased many of the musical styles associated with Santiago, including the music of Electo Rosell(of the Orchestra Chepin-Choven) and Mariano Mercerón, both important pioneers in the percussion-propelled Cuban big-band sound of the 1930s. On Vol. II: Danzones de Romeu at Café La Diana, Virelles reinterpreted the piano music of iconic early 20th-century pianist/composer Antonio María Romeu, exploring his practice of playing danzones accompanied only by güiro. The completed work, entitled Igbó Alákọrin (The Singer’s Grove) Vols. 1 & 2, was issued in November 2018.
After touring and an extended break caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, in which he spent his time composing and recording demos, Virelles won the Herb Alpert Award for the Arts in 2021. In May 2022, Pi issued Nuna 2022, titled for a book of his solo piano compositions. The set contained 16 previously unpublished works. The pianist was accompanied on three pieces by percussionist Julio Barreto.
DAVID VIRELLES WILL PERFORM WITH SAXOPHONIST VINCENT HERRING AT KLAVIERHAUS AS PART OF THE MUNDO DEL PIANO LATINOAMERICANO PIANO FESTIVAL. FOR INFORMATION AND TICKETS CLICK HERE.