By a certain measure, Afro-Cuban jazz turns 70 this year. Like jazz in general, this offshoot has evolved immensely, from Mario Bauza’s clave-based 1943 jam “Tanga” to Irakere’s daredevil ’70s fusion and Gonzalo Rubalcaba’s finger-busting early-’90s pianism. Cuban-born, NYC-based standouts like Dafnis Prieto and saxist Yosvany Terry have reinvigorated the style, while embracing the virtuosic flair that’s marked the subgenre since its inception.
Cuban pianist David Virelles put forth a similar aesthetic on his 2007 debut, Motion, but last year’s Continuum—the 29-year-old’s first for cutting-edge local jazz label Pi Recordings—offered a striking alternative. The album has its heated moments, yet it’s far from pyrotechnic. It’s a murky, almost opaque statement, like a secret rite witnessed through a cracked door. That’s partly due to a language barrier: Many tracks feature dramatic recitations by poet-percussionist Román Díaz, in Spanish and Afro-Cuban ritual tongues, with no translations provided. But the same sense of mystery pervades the album’s wordless pieces, including hushed free-form ballad “Threefold” and “Ma–ongo Pablo,” a heady duet between Virelles’s Wurlitzer organ and the drums of septuagenarian free-jazz innovator Andrew Cyrille. Continuum doesn’t dazzle; it beckons.
All the Continuum principals, including Díaz and bassist Ben Street, will be on hand for Virelles’s inaugural Village Vanguard bandleading run, a milestone for any jazz artist, let alone one pursuing such an unusual sound. The late set on Thursday features guest saxist Henry Threadgill, another composer-conceptualist fiercely devoted to fashioning new dialects from established languages.—Hank Shteamer
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