By J.D. Considine
One of the most common misconceptions about classical music is the notion that there’s a level of self-abnegation in a performer’s deference to the composer. In this view, if you focus your performance on delivering what the composer intended, you’re somehow erasing your own contribution to the music. The reality is, of course, anything but; what truly great interpreters manage is to find their own voice within the both the composer’s vision and the tradition from which it descends. With immersion comes transcendence, and that’s precisely what David Virelles is after here.
Igbó Alákǫrin (The Singer’s Grove) Vol. I & II is one more in Virelles’ series of explorations into the legacy and possibilities of Cuban music. But unlike its predecessors, this album is more focused on the past than the future—no electronics, no abstractions, no classical crossover, just the decades-old sound of Santiago de Cuba. On a superficial level, the move seems calculatedly regressive, an attempt by Virelles to have his own Buena Vista Social Club moment. Listen closely, though, and it becomes clear that what Virelles actually is doing is extending his reach by laying deeper roots.
Igbó Alákǫrin is in two parts, the first featuring vocalists and large, big band-ish ensembles, the second just Virelles’ piano and Rafael Ábalos’ guiro. The brassy, percussion-driven punch of the album opening “Bodas De Oro” fuels an immediate burst of nostalgia, particularly given the saxophones’ wide vibrato and the old-fashioned thump of the drums. But when Virelles enters with a dissonant, rhythmically complex piano solo, the effect is anything but retro. Even so, it fits the groove and the mood, and Virelles’ phrasing is so perfectly idiomatic, it’s hard to imagine dancers pausing even for a beat.
Ultimately, that’s the magic here. Having grown up within the tradition of Santiago’s music, Virelles understands not only how to maintain it, but how to grow it. Even when he remains within a tune’s harmonic boundaries, as on “El Rayaero” or “Tres Lindas Cubanas,” his playing conveys a deep sense of the music’s rhythmic potential, an understanding that similarly has animated his more abstract efforts. In that sense, Igbó Alákǫrin might be Virelles’ most radical album yet, because here the music is moving in both directions—forward and backward—at the same time.