Legendary Drummer Andrew Cyrille Reunites with Bill Frisell and Ben Street, For ‘The News’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Legendary drummer Andrew Cyrille released his ECM debut as a leader in 2016, when he was 76, marking a kind of late-career renaissance. That spacious, highly acclaimed in-the-mold-of ECM album, The Declaration of Musical Independence, featured an intergenerational quartet with Bill Frisell on guitar, RicTeitelbaum on synthesizers and piano, and Ben Street on bass. Cyrille had planned to reconvene this same group in 2019, but Teitelbaum’s health issues precluded it, and sadly he passed last year. So, Cyrille, now an octogenarian himself, enlisted another brilliant pianist and keyboardist, Cuban-born David Virelles, for The News. Virelles had previously played with Cyrille and Ben Street in contexts including the group Continuum.

Frisell’s lush tones and Cyrille’s understated playing create a brightness which the Darth Vader-like Virelles, counteracts with his emphasis on dark, lower register chords and haunting phrases.  The leader serves as a spiritual guiding light with a presence so subtle characterized by light snare taps, cymbal flourishes, and frequent use of brushes throughout that one might easily guess that Frisell, with his three compositions or Virelles, with his unmistakable presence, may indeed be the leader. We also know that Frisell is rarely paired with a guitarist but the two usually do not occupy the same space, and in that sense, this reads more like a trio album with most passages featuring either of the chordal instruments.  Yet, the effect of the two is both complementary and contrasting. 

They begin with Frisell’s “Mountain,” the epitome of the light and dark contrasts purveyed by the guitarist and pianist respectively. The single, a version of Adegoke Steve Colson’s “Leaving East of Jordan,” depicts the unpredictable nature of Virelles as indicated in his tempo-quickening section that begins around 5:00 and continues to the conclusion of the piece. That one dates to Cyrille’s early AACM period. Cyrille has previously played it both with its composer and with the group Trio 3 with Oliver Lake and Reggie Workman. The second of the Frisell compositions, “Go Happy Lucky,” is a blues abstract drawn in part from Duke Ellington’s “Happy Go Lucky Local.” Cyrille’s snare and cymbal work behind Frisell’s bluesy leads is especially impressive. The guitarist and pianist trade lines with Virelles comping to Frisell’s lead as it goes out. 

The title track’s odd crackling sound is due to Cyrille placing a newspaper over the snare drum and toms and playing with brushes. This is an older piece of his, tracing to his solo percussion album, The Loop, made for the Italian Ictus label in the late 1970s. The early part of the piece features the combination of Frisell’s effects with Street’s bowed bass but it’s the leader’s percussion work that makes the several rustling sounds so memorable. The minimalist “Incienso” was penned by Virelles, who engages in quiet dialogue with Cyrille throughout, leaving us wondering just what notes he’ll hit next. Frisell’s unmistakable guitar follows in his tune, “Baby,” a similar reflective aura, just a tad more luminous than Virelles’ piece.

“Dance of the Nuances,” co-written by Cyrille and Virelles, is an exploratory piece that first appeared on the label in 2011 with Chris Potter and is as exemplary as any of Virelles’ searching style. Cyrille’s “With You in Mind” also has a history in trio interpretations with Henry Grimes and Bill McHenry and in duo with Greg Osby. Here the music takes off from Cyrille’s soft, sincere unaccompanied spoken word introduction with the band amplifying its sentiments, with the tender solo from Frisell representing his best moments on the project.

These musicians all have shared histories in various combinations. As with the 2016 recording, they show that quiet subtlety can deliver brilliant music in their “less is more” way. 

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