Pianist, arranger, and composer David Virelles returns to Pi Recordings for the first time in six years following three compelling experimental releases on ECM. Though Virelles has made folkloric Cuban music a centerpiece of his recordings and compositions, he has never addressed the music of his hometown in Santiago de Cuba as directly as he does here. Igbó Alákọrin (The Singer's Grove) Vol. I & II is, according to his liner essay, the fulfillment of a dream, a project he's sought to realize throughout his career: Reinterpreting the works of Santiago's composers' cultural heritage, accompanied by top players rooted in the city. A child of professional musicians, Virelles grew up among the greatest players from Cuban music's golden era. He spent many nights hanging around the historic E.G.R.E.M-Siboney studios watching his father record among those players. He returns there for Igbó Alákọrin with some of those same artists as his sidemen.
The album is divided in two parts. The first, subtitled "David Virelles Introduces the Orquesta Luz de Oriente," finds him arranging anthological pieces written by regional composers including Electo Rosell Chepin and Mariano Merceron -- both of whom helped to pioneer Santiago's big-band sound. The second volume, "Danzones de Romeu at Cafe La Diana," is an EP dedicated to the music of late 19th and early 20th century pianist/composer Antonio María Romeu, performed in duet with the veteran danzonero Rafael Ábalos on guiro duplicating the composer's own method for performance. (The guiro is an open-ended, hollowed out gourd with parallel notches cut into one side, played by rubbing a stick along the notches.) The first nine tunes are alternately lushly romantic and virtuosic, recalling a time where emerging swing and big-band jazz met Cuban dance music. Virelles' large band includes two alternating lead vocalists in salsero Emilio Despaigne Robert and the last trovadore, 81-year-old Alejandro Almenares, who also plays requinto. The easy late-night groove on the classic opener "Bodas De Oro" with choral vocals is done straight until Virelles' angular piano solo moves it afield. The popping percussion and swinging horn chart in the "El Rayaero" (sung by Robert), makes it easy to hear where the surf tune "Tequila" came from. The bright, sunny, aching "Canto a Oriente," sung by Almenares, is also a showcase for his amazing requinto playing. The lone Virelles' original "Suba la Loma, Compay" directly juxtaposes a dance tune with vanguard jazz to dizzying effect. The duets on the second part owe equally to the classical piano and folk music traditions; the startling shifts and arpeggio combinations Virelles' folds into "Tira la Cuchara y Rompe el Plato" highlight not only his interpretive skills, but his improvising chops as well. Fans of Virelles' catalog will find much to like here, some should even find it revelatory; those who enjoy historic Cuban music will appreciate this native son's desire to document this music in a contemporary context that makes full use of, and retains its reverence for, tradition, while ensuring it remains vital in the 21st century.