Front Street Duets
Hilario Duran and David Virelles are two acclaimed Cuban pianists and composers who have known each other for over two decades. They come together here on Front Street Duets with their most extensive project to date. There seems to be a proclivity for Cuban pianists to locate in Canada, either Montreal or Toronto. (Note Rafael Zaldivar who we covered on these pages) The Toronto-based Duran, in a career that now spans 45 years, has won three Juno awards and earned a Grammy nomination for 2006’s From the Heart with his Latin Big Band. He has performed and recorded solo, in duos, in combos, and in big band settings. He’s ventured into classical and chamber music as well. David Virelles, who this writer first saw perform in duet with Ravi Coltrane at Newport Jazz in 2019, had spent time in Toronto but is now based in New York. Virelles, thirty years Duran’s junior, is well known in progressive circles, having also played with Andrew Cyrille, Bill Frisell, Henry Threadgill, Chris Potter, and Steve Coleman, in addition to Coltrane. His contributions to Cyrille’s 2019 The News and Johnathan Blake’s 2021 Homeward Bound are especially noteworthy.
So, in one sense we have the mentor and mentee together for a curated collection that features new arrangements by both of traditional Cuban music, six original compositions written for this project by Duran, , and fresh take on the standard “Body and Soul.” While both pianists are superb improvisers, we hear that but for the most part, they stay true to the complex arrangements each developed. Coming from the same musical foundation of Cuban music, they share a kind of telepathy in terms of the directions these compositions take. The duo completed recording in just two days, fittingly at the Glenn Gould Studio in Toronto, named for the iconic Canadian classical pianist. It brought back fond memories for both pianists as each performed original compositions in the space in 2008 as part of a special celebration of Gould. The immaculate sound is due in part to producer Peter Cardinali and Juno/Grammy winning engineer John ‘Beetle’ Bailey.
They open with the first of Duran’s compositions, the lively, flowing “Guajira For Two Pianos,” that is marked by shifting rhythm patterns that gradually picks up momentum and really churns around the four minute mark, before resuming its melodic quality and abrupt close. “Challenge,” also by Duran is highly spirited and at times has the pianists playing over each other and at other times in tandem. Duran’s “Punto Cubano 31” has the most distinctly Cuban flavor of the first three with one pianist commanding the higher registers while the other focuses on the lower register in chordal support.
“Danza Lucumi,” by Alejandro Garcia Caturia, is a meditative arrangement by Virelles of a tune from his Santiago de Cuban region while the gentler “La Malanga,’ by Calixto Varona, is breezy and bright with a beach-like vibe, like a soundtrack for the cover art which depicts two superimposed pianos on a sandy beach, with a city (presumably Havana) in the distance. Duran’s “Milonga Por Cuba (dedicated to 7/11) takes a distinctly dramatic, and at times, mournful and determined tones as it nods to those protesting in Havana last summer. Interestingly, it is one of more fluid pieces with little, if any of the percussive style that is typically associated with the Cuban piano style. Duran, like Virelles, pays homage, as the widely ranging “Santos Suarez’s Memories” points to the neighborhood in Havana where he was raised.
A clear highlight of the program is Duran’s “David’s Tumbao,” a dynamic tune in tumbao form written for Virelles. Duran’s nickname, ‘Cum Tumbao’ inspired the title of his well-received 2017 album. The two first recorded a version of this online during the pandemic to wide response and decided to do this ‘finished’ version here. They close with the classic “Body and Soul,” a view into the immense talents of the two pianists for those not familiar with Cuban music, but likely familiar with this chestnut. Like those ocean waves, immerse yourself and let this music of two remarkable pianists wash over you.
- Jim Hynes