Santiago-raised and Brooklyn-based pianist-composer David Virelles returns to our stage this Friday, August 14th, bolstered with new repertoire and collaborators that expand on the lexicon he has presented and crafted at the Gallery since first playing here with Steve Coleman. Nurtured by the support and collaboration of Henry Threadgill, Mark Turner, Chris Potter, David Binney, and Tomasz Stanko among others, the in-demand Virelles has made strides in developing his own voice, recently voted #1 “Rising Star Pianist” by the DownBeat 2015 Critics’ Poll. Through offerings like the 2012 Continuum (Pi Recordings), the Gallery’s own Commission Series and the 2014 Mbókò (ECM), Virelles has explored elements of folkloric rhythm and Afro-Cuban ritual, employing mixed-media tools like animation, poetry and abstract painting to compliment the sonic language at hand.
This Friday poses a new setting for dialogue, calling on Brandon Ross to join the forces of past and continuous Virelles collaborators, Thomas Morgan, Eric McPherson and Roman Filiú. We recently caught up with David by phone to learn more about the upcoming performance and his priorities at present:
The Jazz Gallery: Tell us a bit about the upcoming hit with Brandon–how did this come about?
David Virelles: This is something that I’ve wanted to put together for a while. I wrote new music, as it was special to get this opportunity to do something with him. He’s one of my favorite musicians. I’ve always admired his own records and his work with people like Threadgill, Cassandra Wilson, and Leroy Jenkins. I wanted to use the same rhythm section from my Mbókò tour this summer with Thomas and Eric. With Mbókò there is certain way in which we’re addressing things from a rhythmic perspective and that is also true of this project because of the players that are involved. In approaching rhythm and improvisation, when I consider every parameter across the written materials, I’m also taking into account the musical personalities that I’m working with because I consider that part of the composition too. It’s more of a special thing that I put together for this occasion….maybe in the future we’ll have the opportunity to expand on it.
DV: Well, for me, I see all areas of my creative activity being interconnected in one way or another. I like that image from the video and thought it somehow represented what I’m trying to do for this date so I wanted to use it. But the IDEOGRAMAS project is a different effort that I’m trying to address separately. While I wouldn’t call myself a visual artist, I’ve always been into drawing since I was a kid. I do it on and off. Sometimes I take things on the road with me but usually it’s a practice at home where all of my tools are. Since I started working on my Continuum project with Cuban artist Alberto Lescay, I’ve been exploring the idea of trying to visually represent whatever musical concepts we’re trying to put forth. For this project, I made these drawings loosely inspired by a Cuban folkloric graphic system “Nsibidi”. I was looking to work with a visual artist and animator and had the privilege of finding Romulo Sans through some things he had done for friends of mine. We worked really hard on that project for a few months–there is so much work that goes into a short piece like that.
TJG: What is the top priority for you now at this point in your career?
DV: Right now, besides composing, it’s just about becoming a better piano player [laughs]. Those are my main focuses. By studying different things I’m interested in, I’m trying to get to a new place as far as technique and language on the instrument. I do a lot experimenting and rudimentary techniques – anything that someone starting to play the instrument would do. I’m working on both classical and other somewhat obscure repertoire. But practice isn’t special, its tedious work. Because I’m trying to have a wider palette on the instrument, I have to work things very slowly.
TJG: What drives your compositional process, and how has it evolved?
DV: For me, it’s still just a matter of getting out what I feel. It’s about a feeling. There is a degree of conceptualization because you’re dealing with a craft, but there’s really no magic. It’s just about the work you put in. I compose mainly at the piano and sometimes just with a notebook. Sometimes I might use software like Logic to work things out and I use Ableton Live for different components but composing really happens first in my mind, and then at the piano. It might actually be a long time before I write something. For some of last year’s material, just plotting what I wanted to write took me about half a year. I make all kinds of notes. If there is something I’m studying, over a period of time my understanding of that subject will grow and give me ideas.
The music has to feel organic. It doesn’t really matter how much it represents a process of experimentation—it’s folk music to me. Also, I don’t really create anything that doesn’t have some sort of connection to what has been done in the past. I don’t really believe in the idea of creating something completely new – I don’t really believe that exists to be honest with you, even though things can be arranged any kind of way, and that arrangement of elements might indeed be something completely new and fresh, and in turn you might end up with something very original. I find that if I have a better understanding of what I’m trying to do, I’m afforded multiple approaches. If I don’t have that basic understanding, I don’t feel like my work is grounded. Sometimes things happen differently. For the music coming up on Friday, I didn’t really have a concept. I just sat down and wrote the music over a period of time, but I don’t feel like I’ve exhausted the ideas in these compositions.
The David Virelles Group performs at The Jazz Gallery on Friday, August 14th, 2015 at 8 and 10 p.m. The group features Virelles on piano, Thomas Morgan on bass, Eric McPherson on drums, Román Filiú on saxophone, and Brandon Ross on guitar. $22 general admission; $12 for members; FREE with SummerPass. Purchase tickets here.