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David Virelles: Igbó Alákọrin

Jim Trageser By

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Maybe the most unexpected delight of 2018, avant-garde pianist David Virelles has released an utterly dyed-in-the-wool homage to his birthplace of Santiago de Cuba.

Completely different from any other recording he's done to this point, this unreconstructed slice of midcentury Cuban music is so completely steeped in tradition, and Virelles' playing is so gorgeously virtuosic, that it's akin to unearthing a lost Bebo Valdes recording from the 1950s.

Which is what makes it as unexpected as it is wonderful: Virelles' earlier recordings were in the continuum of Keith Jarrett, Satoko Fujii or Carla Bley, imbued with a modernist sensibility that offered no hint that he had a throwback outing like this in store.

Igbó Alákọrin hearkens a bit to 1994's Casa de la Trova, a multi-artist compilation that captured the traditional styles of the cafés and clubs of Santiago de Cuba. But it's probably a bit closer in approach to the three-volume Paris Musette (Fremeauz & Associes) series of releases in the early 1990s that aimed to re-create the nearly lost sounds of French musette by pairing some of the remaining veterans with a younger set of musicians to carry it forward.

Just as the jazz communities in New Orleans, Kansas City, Chicago and New York all had their own characteristic sounds at the birth of the Swing Era in the 1930s, so, too, do different cities in Cuba have their own traditions and sounds. The famed series of Buena Vista Social Club releases, built around the same modus operandi as the Paris Musette (Just A Memory) series in the late 1990s and early 2000s focused on Havana.

And it wouldn't be inaccurate to view Virelles' release as a Buena Vista Social Club for Santiago de Cuba.

Divided into two volumes, the first nine tracks find Virelles in a variety of group settings, from small combo to a big band. Here, he is joined by more veteran musicians from Santiago, such as singers Emilio Despaigne Robert and Alejandro Almenares, performing local standards. He is also joined by his father, José Aquiles Virelles, in the chorus, and younger brother Abel on trumpet. Other musicians from Santiago de Cuba fill in on horns, guitar, and percussion—both longtime veterans with careers stretching back decades, and younger players just now starting out. In this, it hearkens to the Paris Musette series—giving the younger musicians a chance to play with and learn from those who came before.

The last five tracks comprise Vol. II, and find Virelles in a duo setting, accompanied only by Rafael Ábalos on güiro, the distinctive Cuban percussion instrument. Here, Virelles' playing is loose, joyous, and wholly of a different era—an era when a pianist could hold down a whole house. It recalls not only Valdés, but other featured pianists of the mid-20th century: Fats Waller and Tuts Washington, Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson.

Throughout, Virelles' solos are wholly consistent with the environment—he shapes his playing to the other musicians. He riffs on the melodies during his solos, but never abandons them. Everything is done within the structure of midcentury Cuban music, but it never feels stultifying or constrained. Indeed, it sounds as if Virelles is having the time of his life—as if, in accepting the structural limitations of traditional Cuban music, he has liberated himself to simply play his heart out.

It is the sound of joy, of love, and it is a most remarkable recording—an absolute treasure.

Track Listing: Bodas de Oro; El Rayaero; Grato Recuerdo; Echa pa' Allá; Canto a Oriente; Un Granito de Arena; Sube la Loma, Compay; Cosas de mi Cuba; Ojos de Sirena; Tápame Que Tengo Frío; Tira la Cuchara y Rompe el Plato; Mojito Criollo; Mares y Arenas; Tres Lindas Cubanas.

Personnel: David Virelles: piano, chorus; Alejandro Almenares: requinto, lead vocals, chorus; Emilio Despaigne Robert: lead vocals, chorus; Rafael Ábalos: timbal, güiro, chorus; José Ángel Martínez: bass; Lázaro Bandera: congas; Román Filiú: alto saxophone; René "La Flor" Domínguez: tenor saxophone; Baudelis Rodríguez: baritone saxophone; Baudelis Rodríguez: baritone saxophone; José Aquiles Virelles: chorus; Gabriel Montero: pailitas criollas, claves; John Benítez: bass.

Title: Igbó Alákọrin | Year Released: 2018 | Record Label: Pi Recordings

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