There is more to David Virelles’ music than meets your ears. From the vast array of media to the cultural implications employed throughout his intertwined mesh of improvisation and composition, Virelles consistently transports both his musicians and listeners to new spaces of creativity and mind-space that they have yet to inhabit. Bringing his experiences both from Cuba and his travels around the world, Virelles has created a masterpiece of mood with ‘Continuum,’ his highly anticipated debut. Read on below to discover the influences and decisions that went into developing his music and be sure to come out to the album release show on December 12th, 2012 at DROM.
How did you get started playing piano in Cuba?
I started playing piano when I was seven. I went to one of the music schools in Santiago de Cuba. That’s where I’m from. It was kind of a natural thing for me because both of my parents are musicians. There was always music around my house. I grew up in kind of a musical situation.
You eventually moved up to Canada to pursue your music studies. What went into that decision?
Well, first of all, my friends Jane Bunnett and her husband Larry Cramer – they’re both musicians from Toronto – have been working with Cuban musicians since around 1982. They’ve gone pretty regularly there to work with musicians and make records. So on one of those trips they came into the school that I went to and we met there. The relationship grew from there. They came back and then they asked me to be on one of their records that featured some of the local musicians. That record actually ended up being nominated for a Grammy.
Later on they just called me up and said, “Hey, we’ve got these grants and we would like to use the money to invite you up to play some gigs with us and take some lessons with the local musicians if you want to.” That happened when I was 17. So I went up; I was supposed to be there for two weeks. Once the two weeks were up, I kept asking them when I was going to go back. They told me I could stay as long as I wanted and play it by ear. I ended up staying longer and longer and then the next thing I knew I had auditioned for the University of Toronto and I ended up getting in. So that was kind of a catalyst for me. I didn’t really plan on staying. I was taking it day-by-day. Getting into school made me really stay.
What was your college experience like on a musical level?
Mainly at that time I was playing with Jane Bunnett’s group. Besides that I was just trying to soak up as much information as I could. Barry Harris would go up to Canada once or twice a year, so every time that he would be in Toronto I was just like harassing him and trying to spend time with him [laughs]. I was trying to soak up some information. He was one of the main people at that time that I was trying to seek out for information. There were also a lot of local musicians in Toronto that also helped me in that period. I had a lot of people like Don Thompson and other local musicians that were very supportive. Some of them I didn’t really take formal lessons with, but still they were mentors who took me under their wing and helped me.
Moving forward to today, your Continuum album is extremely deep both musically and conceptually. Where did the idea for this first come from?
I’ve been thinking about that sort of combination of a lot of different elements—cultural elements of where I come from and cultural elements of the music that’s being made by jazz musicians and people that play improvised music. Since I first started, I’ve always been fascinated by that. I’d say for a long time I’ve been trying to get to understand how to manipulate those elements and it just so happened that I was able to put this particular group of musicians together. It seemed like it was the right combination of people. The idea behind it was just that I wanted to have a group that could understand that sensibility. I wanted to be able to make a record that will kind of speak about the culture that I come from. Not only from a musical standpoint, from a cultural standpoint and that would encompass different mediums from poetry to visual arts. I’ve always been fascinated by the Afro-Cuban ritual expressions. That’s something that I wanted to investigate and feature in the album, so I tried to seek out people that I knew would be in tune with that sensibility. The album is the result of that. It’s many years of finding out how to put those things together.
How do you relate to the Afro-Cuban expression on a musical level, and how did that manifest itself on the album?
On the album there are a few artists from Cuba that participated on the album, one of them being Alberto Lescay who is a painter. A lot of people ask me, you know, “How come if he’s a painter he is listed as a sideman on the record?” Like I said, I was trying to bridge different things and I wasn’t really thinking, “This is just a record.” I didn’t want to go about it like that. I wanted to include different people that in my opinion are trying to do the same thing, but from different angles and who use different mediums. One of them was Lescay who I’ve wanted to work with for a long time. We had started collaborating in 2009 or 2008 when we did a concert in my hometown. He’s also from my hometown. He’s a very known artist in Cuba and worldwide. He’s done a lot of monuments and other things. I had a connection with him since I was little because he was a friend of my parents. He’s also a musician too, so we would get together and play music and hang out.
Roman Díaz, who is the percussionist and the vocalist on the record, I actually met in Canada. He lives here in New York and when I came to New York I always was trying to figure out ways in which I could include him. I just love what he does so much and I respect him in terms of what he knows and what he represents and knows about Cuban culture. I’d say he is one of the most representative people in terms of Afro-Cuban folklore in North America. That’s my opinion. But I wanted to feature him on the album so that I could create a story behind the record. I thought that having him would be a big asset to the record because of the information that he has and the kind of musician that he is.
The third person from Cuba on the record is Román Filiú who is an alto saxophonist and composer. He’s featured on one of the tracks on the album. Román and I also have a history. His father was one of my music teachers growing up in Cuba. Román was always one of those people that I looked up to, because he’s slightly older than me and when I started playing music he was already playing professionally with some of the great Cuban bands. He was with Irakere, which was Chucho’s band. He played with them for a long time. He was always someone that I looked up to and in the mid-2000s he moved to Spain. Of course at that time I was living in Toronto so when I found out that he was living in Spain, I tried to connect with him. I’d say almost every year we tried to get together in Madrid. We would try to organize something where we’d play some concerts or just get together and exchange music and exchange information. He moved to New York in 2011, so I was really happy when I found out that he wanted to make the move to New York. We share a lot of things in common, so it was a natural thing for me to have him on the record. I love his musicianship and his energy.
What was the songwriting process like for this record? Did you write all of the songs yourself or was it more of a collaborative process?
I’ve been playing trio with Ben Street and Andrew Cyrille for a while now. We did a few gigs before the record and that kind of set the tone for the record. We were playing these gigs and we would just play for an hour straight and it would all be improvised material. So the improvised material kind of provided a background for the pieces that I composed for the record. I took the flavor of some of these themes that we improvised and I tried to expand on that. I tried to make a world out of those small things that we would improvise in concert.
Then I also did a research trip; I went to Cuba. When I did that trip I was also trying to write the music for the album. So between the stuff that we had already played in concert and some of the stuff that I was checking out on that trip and on the road with other groups as well, that’s how I came up with the music. All of the pieces are part of one big piece. I don’t want to call it a suite, because it’s not really a suite, but they’re all related like all pieces of one puzzle.
The music is very improvisational, but the material on the record is very specific. There’s maybe one song that is improvisation with Andrew Cyrille. It’s an improvised duet. The rest of the stuff I wrote, but the way that I wrote the stuff allowed it to be loose. I wanted it to feel like the improvisation and the written material was all part of one thing and you couldn’t tell the difference. That was one of my goals: not being able to tell what was written and what was actually improvised.
The opening track, “One,” is a spoken word piece. What’s the meaning behind it?
Because it’s the opening of the record and there is this Afro-Cuban undertone to the record, it’s kind of an acknowledgement to all of the different traditions out of Cuba. We’re acknowledging the different lineages and different cultures that still exist in Cuba. Even for someone from Cuba that of course speaks Spanish, it would be hard to understand because it’s like layers and layers of cult-like language. But basically what we tried to do on that track was like acknowledge those different traditions all the way from the folkloric forms to the popular forms of music and expressions that exist in Cuba. Also because it’s the opening of the program, it has that function. It has that function of an introduction. It sets the tone for what’s going to happen on the record.
Alberto Lescay commissioned over 20 paintings for the record. What was the process behind that – did you play him the record and then he created these?
The process was actually the other way around. The record wasn’t made yet. I told him what I wanted the record to be about and of course he was right there and completely understood where I was coming from. He embraced the whole thing. What I did do though was I played him some of the concerts from before we recorded because I recorded all of that stuff. I also did a trip to the countryside where a Cuban-Haitian community is still very vibrant. They keep their Haitian traditions and their religion, their music, their bands. So we went up there and that trip also helped kind of shape the concept of what we wanted to do. That was an important element to be able to do that.
So we had the concept and he called me a few days later and said, “I came up with these paintings and I’d like to know what you think.” I went over to his studio and he showed me what he had come up with and to me it was perfect. It was the perfect complement to what we were trying to do musically.
Where will the paintings be featured?
You can see some of it on the album artwork and we also produced a video [for the opening track]. My friend Andrei Lizardi who is an artist from Puerto Rico started a team called Nebula Culture and they produced the video with the art that Alberto produced. So that’s primarily where you can see the paintings, but I will also put them on the web. I’m hoping to go live with my website soon.
What is the album release party going to sound like?
We have a program that lasts roughly about an hour. We’re definitely playing material from the record, but it’s all improvisational. We could play all of it or we don’t have to play any of it. It’s very loose. It’s just a guideline. We have a program, we have an idea of how things are going to evolve, but it’s not set. Anything could happen. We have Andrew and Ben and Díaz and Filiú who are all such advanced musicians. They could go any direction and that’s what I like about them. I like being able to allow people to basically go where they feel and where they think they should go. That’s what I want to be able to provide for everyone on the bandstand. So yeah, we will definitely be playing material from the record, but it will also be very improvisational. Like I said, it will be an hour straight with no interruptions.
Both Questlove and Tyondai Braxton are also doing DJ sets at the release show. Do you collaborate with them?
I have never collaborated with Questlove, but he was very gracious to give his time and energy for the concert. I’m very grateful that he wanted to do it. Tyondai Braxton who is one of the people right now that I love creatively. I wanted him to somehow be involved with the project, so he also graciously agreed to be part of the event. So he’s also going to do a DJ set, and of course Ahmir will also do a DJ set. It should be a very fun evening.
Interview by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)
During this intimate event, David Virelles will give an exclusive performance of his highly anticipated US debut album Continuum, followed by an after-party featuring Grammy award winning musician, TV personality and music aficionado Ahmir ‘?uestlove’ Thompson, who will be spinning rare tunes. Additionally, Tyondai Braxton will also share his musical tastes deejaying prior to the live performance.