Chucho Valdes, the legendary, 76 year-old Cuban pianist whose late father, Bebo, was one of the architects of Latin Jazz, has referred to the young musician David Virelles as a “genius.” For the 35 year-old Virelles, with a long career still ahead of him, this is a formidable compliment to live up to. Still, few jazz aficionados would argue with Chucho’s assessment. Since arriving in NYC in 2009, through a handful of records and live performance, Virelles has established himself as the new face of Latin Jazz in the 21st Century. His music is challenging, virtuosic and boldly original. The highly sought-after performer chooses his gigs sparingly, so the Dangerous Rhythms Latin Jazz Explosion is thrilled to be able to showcase this remarkably talented composer and pianist. T.J. English, curator and host of the series, recently caught up with Virelles to ask some questions about, among other things, his upcoming show at Zinc.
So much of your music feels improvised, so I’m curious what you have planned for this particular show. Will you be playing pieces from your recorded CDs? Will you be creating new material for this show? Or are you going to create the music as you go along that evening?
It will be a combination of things. We’ll be playing some things that we’ve recorded. A lot of stuff that I do, it may sound improvised, but it requires structure. So we’re doing a combination of some of my music that we’ve recorded, and obviously there’s going to be improvisation, because that’s an area that we focus on. Also, it’s going to be kind of a
different format – something that I’ve been doing for a while, an unusual format. I’m going to be playing piano, and I’ll have a set of three percussionists with me. So it won’t be a drum set or bass. Just three percussionists and piano. So we’re going to be exploring the sound palette that particular group offers.
The percussionists that will be playing with me are world class percussionists. One of them is Román Díaz, who is like a guru of Cuban folkloric music all over the world. He’s one guy that people go to when they want to explore improvisation within the Afro Cuban folkloric element. He’s a major source as far as information on the subject, and also because of his artistry. So we’ll probably play a couple Cuban standards, things that
we’ve worked out over the years, and, yeah, there’s going to be improvisation and probably lots of room for everyone to be featured. So I think it’s going be a dynamic show.
Tell me about your musical background – you’re from Santiago de Cuba, your father was a singer and your mother a flute player. So you grew up in a musical family and a strong musical tradition. How has this shaped your musical journey in life?
I am a musician basically because of those conditions, how I grew up. Like you say, both of my parents are musicians. And they’re both still active. And I grew up in Santiago, which is a very musical city. Arguably, you know, a lot of people say that’s where the son tradition comes from. I don’t think it’s as simple as that, but that’s where these genres developed in that area of the country. Because Santiago is the biggest city in that area, a lot of the musicians went to there; that’s where they would hone their skills before they went to Havana. A lot of the musicians, maybe they were serving in the Army, or they were looking for opportunities, so they would go the capital [Havana] to showcase their talent and have opportunities working for recording labels that were in Cuba at that time – RCA Victor, for example.
If you go to Santiago, you’ll see everything co-existing at the same time. You have folkloric music and also a lot of the traditions that were inherited from Haitian descendants that were brought to that part of the country. So it’s a very rich city as far as culture goes. There’s a lot going on. Even today.
Would you say that in Santiago there was also an emphasis or influence of the Afro side of Afro-Cuban?
Yes, in all of Cuba I would say, but Santiago — they call it the most Caribbean city in Cuba. That’s partly because it’s kind of a hub for a lot of things that happened in that part of the world, the Caribbean. So a lot of not only Haitian descent by also French descendants who were living in Haiti at the time of the revolution. They escaped after the revolution and they settled in that part of Cuba. You can definitely feel that influence through the music of the conga, which is the carnival parade. And they come out not only for the carnival but for a number of festivities, New Years, all kinds of stuff.
So the African presence in our culture is felt not just in Santiago but in the whole country. It is present in all of our culture, our dialect, even though we still call it Spanish. The African legacy is foundational in our culture. And in Santiago it’s definitely very strong.
And do you feel this is alive in your music?
Oh yes, very much so. And we’ve done that purposely. We’re trying to research very specific parts of Cuban music that have a very specific lineage connected to Africa and connected to Spain. To the cultures that came together in Cuba.
Here’s what I find so interesting about your music: You are not only on this discovery of seeking out your cultural history and bringing it into your music, but you insist on doing it in ways that are original and are not nostalgia. I find this amazing in your music. When I listen to your piano playing and your compositions, sometimes I don’t know where you’re going with your next note much less the rest of the piece. You’ve not only set a task for incorporating these things into your music, but you ‘ve set an even more difficult task, a higher bar, in terms of incorporating it into your music in ways that are totally original and fresh.
Well. Here’s the thing. When I started getting into jazz, obviously because of the conditions in Cuba, we didn’t have a lot of American musicians coming through. Sometimes, maybe once or twice a year, I would have the fortunate chance of meeting established American musicians who would come to the Havana Jazz Festival. So for me that was an opportunity to get first hand information about this music that I became interested in through my parents and my grandfather. Because they were fans of this type of music. And for me it was always very connected to the traditions that I grew up with and the music that I grew up listening to. I realize now that the similarities were more than superficial; certain rhythmic things that Thelonious Monk would play reminded me of things we would hear in certain types of Cuban music. So when I started talking to American musicians, and older Cuban musicians, they would always talk about finding your own voice and having something to say as a creator, as an original voice.
Because, over time, it almost became a stereotype to be a Cuban pianist, a so-called Latin jazz or jazz pianist. In those early years, for me, it was important to find a different path that was almost an oblique direction to that. So for me it was always very important that if I were to work with our folklore, our music, it was important that I tap into something different that hadn’t been done before, because obviously we have many different genres in Cuba, but there are some of them that have been exploited the most. So I made a point of making it clear that we have others that haven’t been explored, and I wanted to do something with that, to find out how those things work. I like to find out how they function on a fundamental level. How does it all work and what can I bring from that into my original music.
Also, it was clear that I didn’t want to just make some kind of mixture of elements, take something from jazz, something from Afro Cuban. I never thought like that. I wanted to create an original music that would express who I am and about my interests, different things that are important to me, not only culturally but in society in general, its connection to everything that we are: spirituality, everything. That’s more or less always been my path. That’s pretty much the reason I’m in New York. Because I was thinking of specific people here in New York who I thought could help me in following that path.
So when you hear the term Latin Jazz, what does that mean to you?
To me, it’s a somewhat problematic term, just like jazz itself is. The term jazz – I’ve read that many of the creators of that music had a problem with the word, and I think I understand why. It’s not just a problem with the word; it’s a problem with labels in general. I mean, if we talk about Latin Jazz, that refers to a wide variety of artists under one umbrella. That’s problematic, because everyone has something different to say. And everybody’s got their own version, their own twist on the music. And with Latin Jazz, we’re at a time, as a fellow musician friend of mine says, we’ve arrived late to the dinner. So many things have already been done. Now, that doesn’t mean we can’t come up with something new and fresh, but we’re at a time when a lot has already been done. Chano Pozo arrived and combined with Dizzy Gillespie, that was a major development in the history of that connection. Maybe the single most important connection, as far as the public knows. There were many other things that were important as well, but the people don’t know about it, because it hasn’t been publicized or talked about.
So you have Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo. Bebo Valdez. Peruchín. Chucho Valdez. Emiliano Salvador. And all of that comes within the category of Latin Jazz. To me, that’s problematic. Because all those artists were doing different things. And the only thing they have in common is that they’re from Cuba. And, sure, there’s a tradition of Cuban music dealing with very particular musical issues, but I think it’s unfair to put everybody in one group.
But aren’t there at least some musical components that link those musicians you just mentioned? We’re talking about the clave as the base root of all that music. So can’t we at least acknowledge that there are some musical elements at the root of what we call Latin Jazz?
For sure. No doubt about that. But the same could be said for jazz music. One common thing, it could also be argued, is that the blues is the connecting element. I mean, you hear the blues in Thelonious Monk. You hear it in Miles Davis. You hear it in Charlie Parker. Ornette Coleman. Pharoah Sanders. Gerri Allen. John Coltrane. And yet all of those people are, like, universes unto themselves.
I mean, obviously, the music comes from the people. So there’s going to be elements that are shared. Because the music is the result of people wanting to be creative, and to connect. Not just socially but on a spiritual level. So if the music comes from the people, you bet there will be common elements between a number of people that come from that community. In my music, the same could be said. There are many elements that we work with that are present in any of these other artist that I mentioned. But if anyone were to listen to it, they probably wouldn’t even think that it’s related. And yet if we’re talking about labels, probably a lot of people would think of it as Latin jazz just because of where I come from, and the tradition of the Cuban pianist.
Well I can see where you in particular would feel constrained by these labels, definitions. Because of the path you’ve set for yourself, which in many way is counter to – or contra – definitions and labels. Let’s face it: the term Latin Jazz is more of a commercial term. It’s a way for the marketplace to categorize and define the music and present it to the public.
Definitely. Of course. Just like with any label.
And that can always be problematic, if it’s enforced too rigidly. One of the reasons I wanted you for this series – and I insisted on it, pushed for it strongly – is because, if we’re going to use the term Latin Jazz, at the very least I want to push the boundaries of that term, that definition.
Yeah. And I really appreciate that. That’s something that we need.
Especially in the year 2018. If we’re going to use that term, let’s push it. The music has moved a lot farther than its original state of being back in the 1940s and 1950s.
Yes, it’s developed a lot.
So let’s acknowledge that. And that doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate the other stuff. We will have acts in our series that represent the more conventional aspects of this music, for sure. But it’s also important that we encourage a broader definition.
Right. Yes. And when it comes to the music, it’s on us, we as musicians living in 2018, to make music that speaks to our time. At the same time, I’m able to create my music in New York, and I’m able to speak with you, thanks to what other people like Mario Bauza and Chano Pozo did. They set a precedent for that kind of collaboration to happen in New York City. So whenever I have the chance, even if it’s not said to the audience, I acknowledge that what we’re doing is thanks to our musical ancestors. Every time I touch a piano or play anywhere in the world, we are actually honoring a tradition. Even if we’re trying to do something original with it. And by being original, I don’t mean rejecting the tradition or not acknowledging or not studying it. Because it’s actually quite the opposite. A lot of my work is actually based on researching material from the past. That’s about ninety percent of my work. And my creativity comes from how do I rearrange these things; what can I learn about how those elements are put together and bring that into my music. It really comes from a tradition. In that sense, I’m a traditional musician, but I’m trying to push my creativity.
How about the aspect of being an entertainer, creating music that excites the audience and that they will want to hear? To what degree does this enter the equation?
Of course, we have to respect our audience. When people come to see us, they’re expecting to see a show. They’re expecting to be entertained. And they might not be entertained in the same way they’d be entertained if they go to a dance show, or something that is, perhaps, well, I don’t want to say ‘accessible.’ That’s not really the right word. Because I believe that accessible is all in the imagination. It’s what people are exposed to. If you’re exposed to rice and beans every day, you maybe don’t know what a falafel is.
It’s all a relative concept.
Yes, it’s all relative. If people walked into a shoe store, or whatever, and they were playing Cecil Taylor in every single store, that’s what the norm would become. So it’s an illusion. But, yes, we’re definitely aware that when we’re up on stage people are expecting a show, so we try to be respectful of that. When we have the opportunity to present a show, we try to deliver, because that’s what we do. We do it at the highest level that we can, and we are as respectful to the music, the musicians and the audience as we can be. Because for us, it’s a way of life, and it’s a lifelong commitment. We’re in it for the long haul, regardless of anything that comes with having a career in entertainment, though we are in the entertainment business.
This brings us to the concept of making a living as a jazz musician in this day and age. With this series, I try to do interviews with as many of the performers as possible, and the subject always comes up of what a challenge it is, now, to make a living as a jazz musician, playing live shows, because the opportunities seem to be more limited than before. Have you found that to be the case?
I hear a lot about this through the older musicians from previous generations who have been doing this for a long time and were around in the old days. For me, to be able to move to New York and do what I’m doing exactly the way that I’m doing it now, it’s been a long path. I’ve gone through a lot of hard work. As musicians, that’s something we work on every day; we try to push ourselves every day. When I first moved from Cuba to Canada, prior to moving to New York, I had to do all kinds of jobs in music. I had to copy music to support myself. I played in wedding bands. I’ve had to do that. Now, luckily, I’ve reached a point in my career, after connecting here with the music community, I’m at a point where I’m lucky enough to be able to say no to a lot of things. That’s a blessing. Because I’m interested in presenting my music in a very specific way so that it has the effect that I believe that it can have. Now I’m in a position where I can say, well, this is exactly how I want to present the music, with the musicians that I want to present it, at the venue that I want to present it. That’s a very lucky position to be in.
At the end of the day, we’re trying to survive as artists. And the opportunities are not plentiful. Still, as creative people, I think we have to push ourselves outside the box to confront how we’re presenting our music, how it’s being labeled, how it’s being recorded, every aspect of how the music is brought to the public. Me personally, and some of the other artists I work with, that’s what we’re trying to do.
One last thing: I’m excited about your show because, even though I’ve been listening to everything you’ve recorded, this will be the first time I’ve seen you live. Are there different priorities and challenges to performing in a studio as opposed to the live setting?
Oh yes. Everything changes. Legendary musicians talk about this, how as soon as a mic comes up, your whole predisposition changes. I feel that musicians edit themselves less if they’re not in a recording environment. Once the mic is up, you’re thinking, okay, this is for posterity, so I better be on top of my game. That sometimes does happen when you’re doing a live show, but the preoccupation with the fact that it’s being recorded is not there, so you are looser. That’s when certain moments can happen that are completely spontaneous, things that are completely in the moment. That’s what is so special and unique about performing a live show.
(Come see and hear the artistry of David Virelles at Zinc Jazz Club, at 82 W 3rd St, in Greenwich Village, NYC, on Thursday, July 26. Sets are at 7 & 8:30 pm.)