When they take the stage, the quartet led by David Virelles – the 32 year-old Cuban New Yorker whom Chucho Valdes, Cuba’s biggest piano star, considers “a genius ”– look like a conventional jazz-piano trio augmented by a hand-drummer. But when they play, they often sound like an all-percussion band, with the crack of Virelles’s sharp chordwork mingling with throbbing basslines and gregarious debates between the two drummers. Virelles has played in Britain before, but he was making his debut as a leader at this gig for the London jazz festival.
Jazz pianists from Thelonious Monk to McCoy Tyner are elusively audible, but Virelles’s close study of Afro-Cuban sacred and ritual music is the real fuel for this group – percussionist and vocalist Roman Díaz is a specialist in both the playing and the traditional significance of Cuba’s biankoméko, a collection of varied congas, shakers and bells. They mostly sidestepped their current album’s repertoire, but stirred a similarly engrossing mix of rhythmic ambiguity, impassioned themes, jazz improv and the palpable sense of a contemporary music with a long past. Virelles combined a fastidiously light touch with broiling passages in which he would hit the keys flat-handed or in a curve-knuckled, scrubbing fashion, or unfold fragile themes in soft dissonances stretched by the sustain pedal, and shatter them with sudden chordal bangs.
The remarkable Diaz would answer his storytelling Spanish vocals – full of phlegmatic shrugs, shouts and entreaties – with bursts of percussion sound. Jazz grooves, driven by Gerald Cleaver’s tuneful free-swing and Vicente Archer’s rich bass tone and rhythmic ingenuity, would come and go, tentative motifs built to frenzied, ritual-dance whirls. The New York Times described Virelles’ work as possessing “nerve and soul and memory ”– they’re qualities that bear repeated listening, to which end this remarkable gig was caught by the Jazz on 3 radio show and goes out on 14 December.
- The London jazz festival runs until 22 November. Box office: 020-7324 1880.