David Virelles: Gnosis

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A review by Andy Jurik for PopMatters.

Cuban-born pianist expands his sonic pallet on his third album

Gnosis represents a meeting of worlds—old and new, Latin and North American—a concept David Virelles knows well. Born to musician parents in Cuba and trained in Toronto and New York, it comes as little surprise that he developed his compositional voice by uniting the musical language of his upbringing with the modern jazz of his new North American home. Gnosisalso signifies new sonic territory for the young pianist; working with an extended ensemble featuring cello, viola, clarinets, and a wide variety of Afro-Cuban percussion, Gnosis is undoubtedly the most ambitious musical project he’s undertaken to date.

Opening tracks “Del Tobaco y el Azúcar” and “Fitití Ñongo” immediately introduce the themes of transcultural blending through separate means. “Del Tobaco” opens with a John Cage-inspired exploration of textures led by massive, dissonant piano chords with bongos and steel pan interjections. “Fitití,” by contrast, features an Afro-Cuban rhythm with Virelles occasionally interrupting the groove with atonal bursts. “Tierra” continues this blending with a lumbering, almost ritualistic pulse built by hand percussion amidst a modal vamp, later doubling the tempo with pizzicato strings and rumbling improvisations.

The tracks featuring a (mostly) solo Virelles deserve heightened praise. “De Ida y Vuelta I” unabashedly takes inspiration from classical piano repertoire with murmurs of beautiful dissonance, while its counterpart “De Ida y Vuelta II” deconstructs any formalities with a jazz-infused sense of aleatoric structure. “Dos”, a Virelles composition arranged by Henry Threadgill, is an unavoidably angular work that would fall apart in lesser hands, but Virelles’ sense of touch and tone reveal the beauty in its clashing chords and stark textures. His sense of space and arranging on “De Portal” and “De Cuando Era Chiquita” showcase a mastery of solo piano akin to Andrew Hill and Keith Jarrett.

Considering the extended ensemble and album length of 18 tracks, it’s not unjust to assume Virelles perceived Gnosis as a longer extended composition, one united by momentary ideas and explorations. With some tracks clocking in at less than a minute, it’s easy to get the impression of the album as a collection of meditations on fusing different musical words (“transculturalization and traditions” as perceived by the promotional material). Listening to Mbókó and Antenna, his previous albums as a leader, it comes as no surprise that Virelles favors the more abstract qualities of modern jazz. Nonetheless,Gnosis is an earnest project, one that blurs the lines between a collection of tracks and a deeper extended composition as much as it does old and new world musical dichotomies.

As such, this might not be a record for every listener. ECM Records has built its reputation upon introspective and forward-thinking music. It has long represented brilliant artists from jazz and contemporary classical that might not otherwise fit within a mainstream art music context. Nonetheless, the ambitions pay off: Gnosis is a stellar recording from the young pianist, one that honors tradition while embracing innovation. While undeniably abstract and esoteric at times, Virelles’ latest can still communicate with audiences who remain open to new sounds and ideas.

There are a few photos in the liner notes featuring traditional Afro-Cuban percussion instruments set in modern NY settings. A marímbula on some park steps, a bongo beside an iron fence. Artifacts of one culture juxtaposed against another revealing their differences–again, old and new, Latin and North American–as much as implying how they could come together. As an ambitious work of modern composition, one that shouldn’t necessarily be limited to jazz alone considering Virelles’ classical trained background, Gnosis is an astounding feat from a relatively young musician on today’s modern jazz front.

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