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David Virelles: Mboko

John Kelman By

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For a relatively young musician nearing his 31st birthday in 2014, pianist David Virelles has managed to both garner a strong reputation and emerge with a singular voice in a relatively short period of time. While his early experiences in North America were within the confines of what might be expected from a Cuban expat, playing with Canadian saxophonist Jane Bunnett, whose career has been predicated on a decades-long fascination with the music of Virelles' native country, in recent years he's emerged as a much broader artist. The first recording to give notice was, perhaps, saxophonist/composer David Binney's wonderful 2011 Criss Cross date, Barefooted Town, but it was not long after that Virelles began to garner even more significant attention with his own 2012 recording Continuum (Pi), but even more so when he began appearing on ECM recordings, specifically saxophonist Chris Potter's 2012 label debut as a leader, The Sirens , and in label stalwart Tomasz Stanko's New York Quartet on the equally impressive Wislawa (2013).

Clearly, even at this relatively early stage in his career, Virelles has nothing to prove and so, with his own leader debut for ECM, Mbókò, he has fashioned a recording whose success is absolutely founded on the musical excellence of his chosen band mates, but which is nevertheless anything but a showcase for overt virtuosity and instrumental pyrotechnics. Instead, its subtitle says it all: Sacred Music for Piano, Two Basses, Drum Set and BIankoméko Abakuá, with the emphasis on Sacred Music. On this set of ten Virelles originals, the emphasis is more about evocation, whether it's the blockier angularity and energy of "Seven, Through the Divination Horn," where drummer Marcus Gilmore and biankoméko expert Roman Diaz create a polyrhythmic stew made denser still through the contributions of double bassists Thomas Morgan and Robert Hurst, or the lyrical beauty of the sparer "The Highest One" where, with ECM's characteristic attention to detail and sound, everyone's contributions are there to be heard with pristine clarity and absolute transparency.

If ever there were a recipe for a train wreck though, it would be two bassist and, in particular, two percussionists, especially when both are utilizing full kits: Gilmore the traditional drum set, and Diaz, the biankoméko—a combination of tumba (obiapá), conga (kuchiyeremá), quinto (biankomé) and solo drum (bonkoechemillá), along with bells (ékon) and shakers (erikundi)—that was a significant part of the Abakuá tradition, a secret magic- religious Afro-Cuban men's society founded in Havana in the 1830s. It's to the credit of Virelles' writing and the players he has chosen that, instead of crashing into one another, these four musicians manage to play with the kind of open ears and open minds that allow for spontaneity within the liberal confines of the pianist's writing, and a magical confluence of color and texture, pulse and groove that runs the gamut from the infectious and powerful ("Biankoméko," "Antillas") to the abstract and gentle ("Aberiñán y Aberisún").

There are trace hints of the kind of percussion-centric Afro-Cuban music that McCoy Tyner made in the mid-'70s on albums like Sama Layuca (Riverside, 1974), but Virelles is a writer possessed of a more complex disposition, with stronger roots in more left-leaning pianists like Andrew Hill and, compositionally, reed multi-instrumentalist Henry Threadgill, with whom he studied and gigged after moving to New York from Toronto in 2009. But if "Stories Waiting to Be Told" ultimately becomes a more potent brew where one of Virelles' most impressive solos of the set—built, almost leapfrog style, from a collection of motifs that appear, only to be subsumed within a greater whole before reemerging later in modified form—contrasts with his equally memorable a cappella intro, a lovely exploration of his instrument's broad range, with superlative pedal use to create wonderfully sustaining voicings that decay into near-silence before leading to the more firm-handed pattern that signals the entry of the rest of his group.

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, whether it's the small details of Diaz's biankoméko, Gilmore's deft kit work, the visceral purity of Hurst and Morgan's interaction...or the constant revelation of Virelles' writing and admirably restrained virtuosity. There are those who suggest ECM's best years are behind it, but in a year where artists like Stefano Bollani, Wolfgang Muthspiel and Norma Winstone are delivering some of the best music of their career, with the addition of Virelles and Mbókò, there's some compelling evidence that ECM's past legacy may be important...but so, too, is its future.

Track Listing: Wind Rose (Antrgofoko Mokoirén); The Scribe (Tratado de Mpegó); Biankoméko; Antillais (A Quintín Bandera); Aberiñán y Aberisún; Seven, Through the Divination Horn; Stories Waiting to Be Told; Transmission; The Highest One; Èfé (A María Teresa Vera).

Personnel: David Virelles: piano; Thomas Morgan: double bass; Robert Hurst: double bass; Marcus Gilmore: drums; Román Diaz: biankoméko, vocals.

Title: Mboko | Year Released: 2014 | Record Label: ECM Records

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