David Virelles' ECM follow-up to 2014's astonishing Mboko label debut is Antenna, a six-track EP rooted in the same musical terrain while differing in its mode of expression. The keyboardist, composer, and producer has long been a sonic explorer; he's deeply involved with the experimental electronic music scene in New York. Sound rather than music has obsessed Virelles since he was a child, because of its ability to create narrative and alter metaphysical perceptions. That's in ample evidence here; he acts as much like a producer and strategist as he does a jazz pianist. In addition to acoustic piano, Virelles employs Hammond B-3, Roland Juno-6, electric and prepared pianos, and various samplers. He re-enlists vocalist Román Díaz and drummer Marcus Gilmore from the Mboko team. The latter not only plays drums but accompanies samples of them to create expansive new grooves. Opening track "Binary" is constructed almost entirely of the ritualistic Afro-Cuban rhythms showcased on the earlier album, but with a twist. While congas and bata drums are played in dialogic exchange by Mauricio Herrara and Gilmore, they are appended with sampled bird song and the fragmented rhythmic sequences of Los Seres, a fictional percussion ensemble created by Virelles. It's simultaneously hyperkinetic and trance-inducing. Henry Threadgill adds his treated, multi-tracked alto saxophone to the all-too-brief ballad "Water, Bird-Headed Mistress." Co-produced by cellist/electronicist Alexander Overington, it's structured like a story as his bluesy horn is accompanied by droning cello and ambient washes of nocturnal sounds. "Threshold" features squawking cello, bird song samples, insect sounds, jazz drums, B-3 drones, percussion samples, and distorted electric guitar, all spindled to hallucinatory effect before a multi-layered vocal chant claims the center. (Gilles Peterson grabbed hold of this cut hard, playing it repeatedly on his show.) "Rumbakua" delivers off-kilter breaks, as Cuban rapper Etián Brebaje Man delivers rhymes, while sultry electric piano staggers between funky jazz and carnival melody. The set's finest (and longest) cut, "El Titan de Bronce," offers electro-acoustic jazz improvisation built on a rhythmic sequence by piano and drums. Electric guitar and sampled snares attempt to frame Virelles' canny, labyrinthine solo that investigates scale, mode, and polyrhythms, but it's too mercurial. While it’s hard to say whether fans of Mboko will be able to embrace Antenna or simply scratch their heads, those interested in 21st century experimental music should flock to it. This set erases boundaries between genre and sound, placing them in service to the creative process. These six shapeshifting stories are as illustrative as they are elusive. If Antenna has a shortcoming, it's simply because it's too brief, and that's a good problem to have for a musician.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek