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David Virelles - Continuum

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Artist: David Virelles

Album: Continuum

Label: Pi Recordings

Review date: Oct. 31, 2012

This is an oddball recording. In terms of its thematic concerns and its instrumentation, pianist David Virelles’ project isn’t too far off of labelmate Steve Coleman’s recent explorations of Afro-Cuban culture and religiosity. But sonically this one’s quite quirky, and all to the good. Virelles (who also plays harmonium, pump organ, and Wurlitzer) leads an intense, focused quartet rounded out by bassist Ben Street, drummer and percussionist Andrew Cyrille and vocalist and percussionist Roman Diaz. But it’s not a conventional piano trio with percussion, either sonically or conceptually. Instead, Virelles leads his group through a series of punchy miniatures, colorful vignettes, or fulsome, polyrhythmics essays, often with emphatic recitations from Diaz.

Against backdrops of probing bass and percussion, Virelles reveals himself to be a distinctive and very quizzical pianist. Every so often Virelles will let loose with a dazzling run that displays his technical accomplishments. But he’s such a judicious player, concerned with the compositional whole and the group feel, that he only springs them when it’s absolutely right, emerging at moments of peak tension, for example. He’s equally happy to lay down a sour harmonium chord and see what kind of sparse commentary issues from his bandmates. Elsewhere, there’s so much spaciousness on tracks like “El Brujo and the Pyramid” that I’m tempted by a comparison with Andrew Hill’s mid-1960s date Compulsion (hear a bit more of the Hill influence, perhaps, on the superb miniature “A Short Story for Piano” – it’s enough to make you crave a solo disc).

Instead of conventional flash or bombast, or even self-important restraint, these performances almost seem to be interested in how long they can sustain a single gesture or moment of tension. There are billowing single notes, unexpected pauses, gorgeous upper-register pizzicato from Street, and an elusive lyricism that’s abetted by Cyrille’s coloristic playing. Diaz’s playing is more blocky, and on initial listenings I wondered if it fit; but the tension he creates (never heavy-handed or too obtrusive) with his stylistic difference actually accentuates the suspenseful, at times brooding quality of the tunes (“The Executioner”). When they do whip up some snaky lines and craggy grooves from their spacious improvisations, they almost seem to be the result of conjuration: listen to Virelles drop some chromatic cluster-bombs before taking monastic flight or trailing off into silence. Continuum really is about the incandescence of such moments. On the heady “Spectral,” Virelles plays harmonium and piano simultaneously over Street’s drone and metallic percussion. On the gorgeous piano/bass duo “Unseen Mother,” he plays off of Street’s gently coaxed overtones to create a contained hush.

The richest, most rousing tracks come late. Densest of all is “Our Birthright,” where Diaz’s stentorian vocals set the tone for an intense chorus of guest horns (trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, Roman Filiu on alto and tenor, and Mark Turner on tenor and bass clarinet). You can just barely sense the chordal direction in this swirling mass of lines and stoked fire. The clattery, insistent “A Celebration, Circa 1836” is one of the most multi-directional pieces here, with all kinds of different rhythmic information against a steady Cyrille rimshot pattern. After that, “Threefold” is a balm, though not without its harmonic density and darkness. And it’s really those latter qualities that distinguish Continuum as a genuinely idiosyncratic record.

By Jason Bivins

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