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Pianist David Virelles shows off the depth and breadth of what he can do on 'Nuna'

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Pianist David Virelles comes from Santiago in eastern Cuba, the part of the island where many styles of Cuban music were born. He studied classical piano and eventually moved to New York in 2009, where his jazz mentors included Barry Harris, Stanley Cowell and Muhal Richard Abrams. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Virelles' new album shows where he's been and where he's going.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID VIRELLES' "AL COMPAS DE MI VIEJO TRES")

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Pianist David Virelles has been a New Yorker for over a decade but remains preoccupied with the rich, varied, rhythmically charged music of his native Cuba. The sleeve for his new solo CD, "Nuna," lists 35 mostly Cuban and American pianists and composers who inspired this music. But he's not about honoring the ancestors as much as minding the possibilities they raise, ideas he can run with.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID VIRELLES COMPOSITION)

WHITEHEAD: The piano was designed for European art music, and David Virelles' list of faves includes Chopin and Scriabin. But Virelles says he also thinks of piano as a hand percussion or non-Western stringed instrument. He'll often keep two lines or layers moving in dialogue, a point underscored on three tracks where percussionist Julio Barreto drops in the thicken the web. On the track "Portico," the heart of Barreto's part is the clave, Cuba's central signature beat.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID VIRELLES' "PORTICO")

WHITEHEAD: Traditional Cuban music is energized by short, syncopated beat cycles like the clave. They inject polyrhythms and call-and-response phrasing into the music at a molecular level. West African practice meets European forms. David Virelles highlights percussive African roots by kicking off the album on marimbula, a big, boxy Cuban version of a plucked West African thumb piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID VIRELLES' "SPACETIME")

WHITEHEAD: You don't have to look too hard to find piano music with similar energy on David Virelles' album, not that he's the first to Africanize the piano. This is from his composition "Ghost Town."

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID VIRELLES' "GHOST TOWN")

WHITEHEAD: David Virelles is interested in the full range of what piano can do, including all those subtleties the instrument was designed to bring out. Deep into Cuban music as he is, Virelles also has his jazz heroes and teachers. He values the rhythmic relaxation and quiet intensity of the jazz ballad.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID VIRELLES COMPOSITION)

WHITEHEAD: On one level, this satisfying and well-rounded program is an advertisement for David Virelles himself. His album, "Nuna," shows off the depth and breadth of his practical knowledge, an Afro-Cuban pianist with serious jazz chops has a very particular and enviable set of skills.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID VIRELLES COMPOSITION)

DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed "Nuna" by pianist David Virelles.

On Monday's show, to celebrate July 4th, we feature our interviews with the great soul and gospel singer Al Green. His string of hits in the '70s include "Tired Of Being Alone," "Let's Stay Together," "Call Me," "Take Me To The River" and "Love And Happiness." After a spiritual awakening, he became an ordained minister and bought a church in Memphis, Tenn. I hope you can join us. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S STAY TOGETHER")

AL GREEN: (Singing) I'm - I'm so in love with you... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.