Front Street Duets is a compelling collaboration of two internationally acclaimed Cuban jazz pianists and composers, Hilario Duran and David Virelles. This collection of piano duets features the virtuosic playing of two musicians in peak form. Duran and Virelles have a musical and personal relationship dating back over two decades, but this is their most extensive project to date.
The Toronto-based Duran is a towering figure in Cuban music. Over a career now spanning over 45 years, he has won three Juno Awards and earned a Grammy nomination (for 2006’s From the Heart, by Hilario Durán and his Latin Big Band). His extensive discography includes work as a solo artist, and in duo, small group and big band settings, and he has also achieved distinction in the classical and chamber music worlds.
Now based in New York City after a stint in Toronto, Virelles records as a solo artist for such labels as ECM and Pi Recordings. He has collaborated extensively with such noted musicians as Andrew Cyrille, Bill Frisell, Henry Threadgill, Steve Coleman, and Ravi Coltrane, and last year he won the prestigious Herb Alpert Awards in the Arts.
When ALMA head and album producer Peter Cardinali presented the concept to Duran and Virelles a couple of years ago, both instantly agreed. “This album is very special because I had the privilege to work with David,” Duran explains. “He is the most important Cuban piano player of this new generation, and now he has so much success in the New York City scene, playing with great jazz stars and doing his own projects.”
The album Front Street Duets played by the great Hilario Durán and his one-time acolyte, David Virelles is a sublime recording. It is one that only Mr Durán could have conceived of. Why? It is not impossible to perceive that, more and more [certainly after the earth-shatteringly divisive pandemic] Mr Durán has turned himself inward, into a secret – and sacred – space, into which artists often withdraw. Equally, it is not so shocking to find that when he opened the proverbial door into that space, he would admit a musician of the fulsome abilities – literally 360° all-round kind of musicianship – that characterises a former acolyte, Mr Virelles – formerly speaking only because Mr Virelles has grown his own pair of sinewy eagle wings to become a high-flier in his own right – holding court with the likes of Steve Coleman, Henry Threadgill, Andrew Cyrille, Ravi Coltrane…
But the virtuosity of these two pianists is of a very different kind. There is no bending of phrases; elongating the choicest one that formed the melodic heart of each piece – and it was always announced as if by a flesh-biting arrow that pierced the senses and propelled the music of Mr Corea and Mr Hancock. Mr Durán’s virtuosity comes from an imaginary interior landscape [of his mind], somewhere between Baroque and Bebop. Thus he usually cannot be restrained from decorative imagery that adorns his narratives [“Santos Suarez’s Memories” is a fine example of this]. But no matter how he adorns he never loses the “heart” of the melody, its emotional epicentre and harmonics and rhythms that propels the music after that climax is reached.
Mr Virelles is one of the greatest young apostles of Afro-Cuban musical tradition, but he has always known that the inner dynamic of tradition is always to innovate, rather than be imprisoned by its structures. And so by actively pursuing this thesis he has managed to throw overboard melodic, structural, harmonic, and [because this is Afro-Cuban music we are talking about] rhythmic hooks that expressively blunted the music through overuse. And so Mr Virelles’ special kind of virtuosity will manifest itself as he builds from what might – or might not – be left of melody, harmony and rhythm inside Afro-Cuban music.
The unique virtuosity informs his arrangements [pursued by both pianists] but especially in Mr Virelles’ playing on Alejandro García Caturla’s composition “Danza Lucumí” and Calixto Varona’s “La Malanga”. Both songs unveil not only the differences in the voices of both Mr Virelles, but also in the magic manner in which Mr Durán presents his interpretation of the works. And this speaks to the kind of magic that separates this piano duet recording from every other one you may have heard – including those legendary ones by Mr Corea and Mr Hancock.
As an important sidenote: It should not go unnoticed that everytime Mr Durán has decided to put his music down on tape, Peter Cardinali [the Alma Records supremo] and John “Beetle” Bailey have always been there to capture it in all its sublime glory. The fact that this time it includes Mr Virelles too, suggests that nothing like this is likely to happen in a long time to come.
What I like most about this album is the coordination that David and I have playing. We show our passion for playing the same music for both of us. David is one of the most brilliant Cuban pianists of the young generation with a rising career in New York City. During his stay in Toronto for a few years, we had the opportunity to share stages and work together on different projects, such as the tribute to Gleen Gould we did in a concert for two pianos with the Penderecki string quartet. We performed original works by David and myself and music by J. Sebastian Bach. Front Street Duet is a project that we started working on at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic; in 2020, Peter Cardinali, ALMA Records head and album producer, presented the concept to me; without a doubt, I chose David Virelles, and he instantly agreed. All listeners can notice our great connection since we hit the first note in this recording. After the album’s record release at one of the best theatres in Toronto, we plan to tour worldwide. Regarding my work, right now, I am touring with Chucho Valdes in Europe, working as a director and keyboardist, directing the arrangement I did for the big band Afro-Cuban percussion and vocals composition by Chucho. Also, I continue working with my different musical formats, presenting my music. I selected David to record this album because I consider David as one of his generation’s most important Cuban pianists, a big star shining globally. We received the same influences from classical and Jazz music at different times. We have a musical and personal relationship dating back over two decades. Right now, David has so much success in the New York City scene, playing with great jazz stars and leading his projects. Most piano duets by jazz players come from improvisation, where they make it up at the moment. We have that in this album, but also we composed and arranged music based on the same background and knowledge of the Cuban music we share. Some of the songs reflect some of the most important styles of Cuban music. For example, ‘Guajira for Two Pianos’ represents the style of Guajira Cuban music, while Danza Lucumi reflects the Cuban dance style from the 19th century. ‘The Malanga’ represents the ballroom dance of the 19th century, but the improvisation part is in a Son Montuno style. ‘Body and Soul’ is a ballad arranged in the style of Cuban Jazz… We are dedicating this album to all Cuban pianists worldwide and within Cuba,- an interview with me said Hilario Duran.
01. Guajira for Two Pianos (05:28)
02. Challenge (03:47)
03. Punto Cubano #1 (04:47)
04. Danza Lucumi (05:17)
05. La Malanga (03:40)
06. Milonga Por Cuba (Dedicated to 7/11) (04:41)
07. Santos Suarez’s Memories (05:17)
08. David’s Tumbao (04:13)
09. Body and Soul (04:41)
Hilario Durán and David Virelles: pianos