A look inside The Jazz Gallery

Photo by Przemek Wozny,

In reviewing a performance by the Mark Turner Quartet at The Village Vanguard last summer, Ben Ratliff of The New York Times called particular attention to the contributions of the bands’ youngest member. According to Ratliff, it was the pianist David Virelles, “who did the most to make the gig erupt.”:

Even in the standards, he did strange things — advanced matters of touch, surprise and momentum. In the Monk, at a wickedly slow tempo, he would linger over melodic phrases in the song and then add a single banged note like an exclamation point; at other times he seemed to be meditatively walking away from the song, building chordal patterns that fragmented and dissipated as the rest of the band stayed on the watch. The music had its peaks, with everyone playing at full strength, but its lulls were even better. And those parts weren’t connoting peace or absence; they were full of action and tension.

In Mr. Motian’s mysterious “Conception Vessel” Mr. Virelles built up to a droning, beautiful, minimalist song within a song, letting Mr. Street and Mr. Motian follow his lead. (Mr. Motian is similarly oblique and headstrong, and this is a particularly good pairing of musicians.) He made the piano misbehave: it grew argumentative and disruptive; it mumbled and receded dramatically, like smoke after a shelling. But throughout his lines retained rhythmic authority and a kind of instant-composition coherence, and very little of it came through the usual routes of jazz piano history.

Born in Santiago de Cuba and raised in a musical family, David became exposed to jazz through the cassette recordings of Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, and Andrew Hill. He came to Canada on the behest of Jane Bunnett, the Toronto-based reedist who has a track record of identifying promising Cuban-born musicians.

While living in Canada, David began conversing with Steve Coleman, first by email and then by phone, and also got in touch with Henry Threadgill. Funded by a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, David made the move to New York to study with Threadgill. He also began to perform with Coleman, along with Mark Turner, Chris Potter, David Binney, Tomasz Stanko, and many others.

Last fall, Ratliff showcased David again in an article titled “New Pilots at the Keyboard”, which provides a more detailed profile for all interested parties.

We first heard David in Steve Coleman’s group at The Gallery, and have been watching him closely ever since. Last year, we presented David’s band, Continuum, and we look forward to bringing them back to our stage on Thursday.

I sat down with David in Prospect Park last week, and spoke with him about his collaborators in Continuum, their music, and his recent studio date for Pi Recordings (the album is scheduled to drop this October). David Virelles speaks:



Tell us about Continuum: how did you decide on this particular set of collaborators?

The group features the legendary drummer Andrew Cyrille, who I first became aware of through Cecil Taylor‘s work. The first time I heard Andrew was on “Unit Structures,” and ever since then I’ve been a huge fan of what he does and what he represents. I’m also a huge fan of the different elements that he brings to music because of his background; Andrew is of Haitian descent, and I can hear that in his music.

It was really interesting…there’s a Cuban sculptor and painter, who is also part of Continuum; he provides the visual component. I played some recordings for him of things that we had been working on, and, without ever having heard of Andrew Cyrille – or Cecil Taylor, or anything about that tradition – he responded, “Oh this guy [Andrew Cyrille], he’s Haitian, right?” [laughs]. So I said to him, “See? This is why you are in this group!”

We have Ben Street on bass, who was instrumental in getting Andrew to be a part of the group. Ben has worked with Andrew before in different situations, and he was actually the one who suggested that we do a project with Andrew.

The first few times that we played was just as a trio with Andrew, Ben, and myself. We had been talking about the possibility of adding different people. We thought about a vocalist; we had thought about different people. Eventually, we decided to add Román Díaz, who is a percussionist, but he also recites what you might call ritual poetry.

Román is somebody who I have a lot of respect for. He’s a former member of Yoruba Andabo, which is one of the most representative folkloric groups out of Cuba. He’s worked in that domain with a lot of different people, and he’s got a lot of experience because he comes from that tradition and practices different lineages of it. He’s added a lot to our group.

You’ve also incorporated other artists: Román Filiú, Jonathan Finlayson, and Mark Turner are on one track of your forthcoming album.

I’ve worked with all three of them in different situations: Mark with his own groups; Jonathan with his own project, but also in Steve Coleman’s group; Román and I were born in the same place but didn’t start playing together until around 2006 or 2007.

Jonathan has performed with Continuum as well, and Román Filiú will join us as a special guest at The Gallery on Thursday.

You also mentioned one other member, Alberto Lescay, the visual artist. How did that come about?

When I conceived of this group, I didn’t want it to be strictly musical. I thought, “How can I make this happen?” One of the first people that came to mind was Alberto because I have worked with him before, outside of the context of Continuum, and it seemed natural to continue that relationship.

What are your goals for this group?

One of the main issues I wanted to address with this group is a generational one. I wanted to have access to the kind of information that people like Andrew Cyrille have, for example. I wanted direct contact with that. And, because those kinds of gigs – like the kind of situation where you could play in Art Blakey’s band, or Betty Carter’s band – those kinds of opportunities aren’t there anymore, I thought, “Well, I have to create that kind of opportunity for myself.”

And this was a way of addressing that issue. I really love Andrew and I imagined that he would bring a lot to what I’m trying to do. And Román [Diaz] is also older. He has also had access to information from elders in his tradition. So that’s one of the main things in this group.

Also, one thing that is very important is that I wanted to look at music not just from the point of view of entertainment. For example, that’s one of the reasons why I went to Cuba recently to research folkloric forms there – to have a deeper understanding of how music functions within a ritual setting. This is something that I wanted to learn more about through working with this group of musicians.

And also, I want to use this group to learn more about my own background; things that I grew up with that are related to the African and Caribbean diaspora. That is something that was very clear to me from the very beginning.

How have you gone about accomplishing these things? Tell us about the history of the group.

A lot of thought went into the conception of this group. I’ve been thinking about how to materialize a lot of these thoughts since I came to New York and started hanging out with Henry Threadgill. Henry was really the one that started opening up some of these doors for me from an organizational point of view.

A lot of research went into this project in a lot of realms, not just music. We are working in music so it was important to explore that, and I do feel that the more we learn about technique and that we conceptialize things, the more that we might have access to a wider range of expression. But that is not my primary focus; it’s just part of the process. Like building a house: you have to have a plan for building your house, because otherwise it’s just going to fall apart!

The next step was just trying stuff on gigs. I would set up different guidelines, with different landmarks that I was sure that I wanted to happen within the course of each concert, and then everything in between would be very improvisational. And then, from those concerts, I started gathering a little bit more information about what I could do, and what [the group] could become.

How would you define or describe a musical or compositional “landmark”?

So, for example, I would say to Andrew and Ben, “Okay, we’re going to play one hour straight, and the concert is going to have five parts. In the intro, Andrew is going to play a hit in unison with the bass and that will be orchestrated with, say, bass drum and a maraca hitting the snare drum. That is going to be the first sound of the concert – just the two of you. [Ben: you can choose] any pitch on the bass. And then we are going to do a sequence of hits – that’s going to be the intro.” So, even though it was specific, it also wasn’t rigid.

And then there would be an open, improvised section that would refer to certain themes I would set forth. For example, I might say, “I want this part to sound like a thunderstorm,” and then we would build into another section, where I would say, “I want this to sound like a futuristic 6/8 African thing.” And different members of the band have different ideas of what that could sound like, so they would all bring their interpretations to the table.

And then, like that, step by step, we would build a template for the concert. But it would be very improvisational and we would just have these guidelines, and that is how we would know where we were in terms of the arc of the concert.

Was that the case last time you performed at The Gallery? How did the addition of Román Diaz impact this system?

For that concert, I actually had some specific written material. And then, to Román [Diaz], I would say, “This is what we are doing musically, and this is what I’d like you to talk about.” And, of course, there is also a theater element that Román [Diaz] brings to the group as well. It doesn’t translate very well on record, but these elements exist within all Afro-Cuban esoteric practices – there is theater, there is dance. And, because he comes from that, he brings that to the table too.

But I discussed it with him first. I told him that I wanted him to talk at the beginning, at the middle, and at the end, and that I could give him cues as to when he should enter. And the were specific things that I asked him to talk about.

And, on the record, it’s actually a lot more specific than [it was then]. On the record, we are dealing with a very particular tradition that is found in Cuba – which Román actually practices – called Abakuá. I wrote this music that was based on the myth of how the Abakuá society was formed, and also on different historic things that happened within that whole process. I tried to make these short musical vignettes out of [the building blocks that] these different characters and historical events gave me.

One thing I’d like to say is that writing based on this Abakuá myth functioned much more as a point of departure. It’s not necessarily my interest to make the myth the focal point of the record; it’s strictly a generative device. I used it to get some ideas, and to relate it to something that I thought was worth exploring.

It’s almost like a backdrop for the real story, which is this interaction that occurs through the music and the intergenerational exchange of information?

Yeah. I’ve even thought about not telling people about that [myth] aspect of it, because then they are going to make that into the story!

What else do you want to add?

The only thing I would like to add is that, with this group – or with anything I’m a part of – I’m trying to get to that same feeling that I get when I listen to McCoy Tyner, or Lázaro Ros or [Béla] Bartók. There is this certain timeless quality to all of that stuff. You listen to it, and you know that, even if human kind disappears, it’s still going to vibrate!

It sounds like it’s been around forever, and like you know it’ll be around forever.

Exactly, and that’s what I would like to do. I know that’s a big statement, but I think that the only way of getting there is to be true to yourself. That means that there’s a lot of work that I have to do personally and not just musically, because the music is just a part of everything else.

The music is what you see in the mirror. 

Yeah. So this group for me, and anything else I’m trying to do, is a vehicle to try to get there somehow.



Continuum plays The Jazz Gallery this Thursday, May 24th. David will be joined by the bassist Ben Street, the drummer Andrew Cyrille, and the poet/percussionist Román Díaz, along with special guest saxophonist Román Filiú, who will perform on portions of each set. The band may or may not perform music from their forthcoming album (out this October on Pi Recordings), to be determined based on the feeling of the moment.