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Interviews

Michel Camilo: Pianist for a Golden Era

By Published: March 1, 2004

The reason why I started playing jazz is that I fell in love with this concept of improvising and the liberty that it poses... I love that... how your juices flow, how the adrenaline pumps when you go on stage.

Michel Camilo has emerged over the last decade or so as one of the virtuoso piano players of jazz, amassing a strong and loyal following. He's classically trained, with monstrous technique and a fertile musical imagination. Naturally, because he hails from the Dominican Republic, his playing is tinged with Latin elements. It may be that the jazz world has another virtuoso to thank for Camilo choosing jazz over other musical pursuits — the legendary Art Tatum.

"The first time I heard jazz was when I was 14 and a half. I heard the great Art Tatum on the radio playing his solo piano rendition of 'Tea for Two.' That immediately caught my ear. I just wanted to soak it in, to learn to play that style. Then I found out it was jazz," he says.

Camilo is at home in both musical worlds. In fact, he's achieved that rare double: two CDs out at the same time, one in each dominion — the classical Concerto for Piano & Orchestra, Suite for Piano, Strings Harp & Caribe and the jazz trio disc Triangulo with his touring group of Anthony Jackson on bass and Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez on drums.

Camilo makes it clear that he is a jazz pianist, however. "Oh yeah. All the way. The reason why I started playing jazz is that I fell in love with this concept of improvising and the liberty that it poses. And also the challenge that it poses to the musician. Because you have to come up with all these new ideas right on the stage, every night. And hopefully they'll be fresh and they'll be interesting. But that risk element is really what attracted me."

Even the classical disc, he says, contains elements of jazz.

Speaking of jazz, Camilo is very positive about its current state and it's future. Maybe it's because of his upbeat personality. Camilo is ebullient and expressive. He laughs easily and his energy is all positive. While some see the glass as half empty and some half full, Camilo seems to see it as nearly full, and if it ever was actually emptying, there's little doubt that, with his enthusiasm and obvious zest for life, that he would find a way to work around it.

"Right now, we're living in an incredible golden era," he says, eschewing the darker picture others are painting about today's jazz scene. "The audiences are huge everywhere I go. They get sold out, all the concerts. And the interest is unbelievable, from the young, which is the future of our music, not just the older folks, but the young ones."

Maybe his optimism also comes from the fact that he has a worldly view. He doesn't talk about jazz and how it appears in the United States. He speaks of how it's appreciated worldwide and how festivals, and audiences, have grown on many continents. It's not a closed view. He's not that way.

And his music, as shown on Triangulo and his other discs, is a reflection of that. His music has life. It has energy. His live performances are upbeat and reaffirming. You can feel Michel Camilo in his music.

"Michel is definitely a big connoisseur of the instrument," says Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez, drummer on the CD and a longtime member of the trio that also includes bassist Anthony Jackson. "He's a big technician and a great musician with a lot of his heritage into his music. He's Latin and Dominican. Rhythms and all that stuff in his music. And also with a lot of space for creation and for choosing. You have a lot to choose from. Sort of World Music, but the maybe main ingredient is the Afro-Caribbean music, and then jazz."

"It's great. Playing live is a joy, but going into the studio with him and Anthony Jackson, one of my favorite not only bass players, but musicians, it was a great chance to hear what we were going to do with that music," El Negro said of the new music.

Camilo agrees. "El Negro is very special. He's very flexible, that's why I love playing with Negro because he gives me all these different worlds in a moment's notice. That is a real advantage to have in my trio. As a person, we get along very well. That's an important part, because when you go on the road you're literally living together, you know? Taking planes together, waiting at airports together, and that shows on stage.

"And then with Anthony, he has been with me for at least 15 years as part of my trios, on and off. Because he worked with Michel Petrucciani when he was alive, and other people. Anthony has been a very important figure in the development of my sound, my trio sound. He's an incredible player. I consider him a genius. He invented his instrument. He calls it contrabass guitar. He has a very special technique and a lot of colors in his hands that I can draw from. He has amazing big ears. It's really a good chemistry and I'm really glad we were able to go into a studio together and capture the live spirit of our performances."

"They're both great friends of mine first. And then amazing musicians. And I'm very happy to have them. I've been touring with them for the last five or six years, all over the world. That's why I took my time," the pianist says.

Triangulo has Camilo's original tunes "Piece of Cake," "Afterthought," "Anthony's Blues," and "Just Like You," "Descarga for Tito," and "dotcom-bustion." And also Latin tinged numbers written by others — "La Comparsa," (Ernesto Lecuona), "Mr. C.I," (Chano Dominguez), "Las Dos Lorettas" (Mike Manieri) — including representation by the great influence on Latin jazz, Dizzy Gillespie, with "con Alma."

Camilo's tour begins in late April in New York City and he is looking forward to making music at each opportunity. His experiences, from his upbringing in a musical family to his associations with people like Dizzy Gillespie, Paquito D'Rivera and Tito Puente, are as varied as his music. And he looks at those, too, with his wonderfully buoyant manner.

All About Jazz (AAJ): You started music at an early age, playing pretty much since childhood?

Michel Camilo (MC): My family is three generations of musicians and composers, so I grew up around the piano, so to speak.

AAJ: Was it always the piano?

MC: Not for me. In my home I did not have a piano. The piano was at my grandparents. So that's where the gatherings would happen for the family. But at home, my parents gave me an accordion, initially. Luckily it was in tune [laughs]. You never know with those toys, right? I was able to pick out some songs. They tell me the first songs I picked out by ear was "Happy Birthday" and "Silent Night." Then I went pretty fast, because my uncles would teach me stuff and I would just watch when they played. I'd pick up on the go.

AAJ: They were piano players?

MC: Yes. I had an aunt and uncle. She was a classical pianist and my uncle was a popular pianist. I would pick from them and just watch the way it was done. And I was in love with the piano, so finally, when I was 9, I asked my parents to buy me one, and they said "Well, first let's put you in music school and see if you last." [laughter] Then at 10, they bought me one.

AAJ: So you went to music school at a young age?

MC: Yes. Down there it's called the Elementary Music School, but it's part of the National Conservatory. Then I started a whole career, 13 years. The first four years are preparatory study, and then you jump to the conservatory. It's a different system down there. It's pretty long.

AAJ: Were you hearing jazz growing up?

MC: The first time I heard jazz was when I was 14 and a half. I heard the great Art Tatum on the radio playing his solo piano rendition of "Tea for Two." That immediately caught my ear. I just wanted to soak it in, to learn to play that style. Then I found out it was jazz. Up until then I was more into the classical training. But pretty quickly I got friends with record collections. It was pretty hard to find a jazz record down there. I got close to the radio emcees and I would go there and borrow records; try to transcribe them and understand what that was about.

There were a couple things that happened in my life. One was Willis Conover, the guy that had the Voice of America jazz radio programs, visited the Dominican. He heard me play and he asked me to make him a demo. He liked what he heard, I guess. Then the Harvard University jazz band also came down to the Dominican. After they played a concert, there was a jam session at the American embassy. I got invited as one of the jazz local players. And I just sat in with them, and all of the sudden the director of the band came over and said "You ought to be in the States." He put the little bug in my head. I didn't know. I was going to medical school by then, as well. Music was more powerful, so I set my eyes on New York and in 1979 I decided to take a leap of faith.

A friend of mine who is a classical percussion player, Gordon Gottlieb, who lives in New York. He also invited me over to his apartment and took me, literally, from club to club. Sometimes I would sit in. Then I set my eyes on New York and decided I should live here and try it and see what happens. It just worked out. I'm very glad it worked out.

AAJ: Who were some of the other jazz pianists that you were listening to?

MC: I was listening to Oscar Peterson and McCoy Tyner and when I came to New York, in '74, the hot thing at that time was Herbie [Hancock] and Chick [Corea] and Keith [Jarrett]. So I picked all of that. But I was also exposed to Horace Silver and a lot of Errol Garner. And some of the old stride pianists, like James P. Johnson and Willie "The Lion" Smith. All that. I also got exposed to some of the stuff played by Scott Joplin. Because ragtime was closer to Latin music, to the Caribbean traditional music. There was a link there, rhythmically speaking.

AAJ: You must have incorporated the rhythms of home into your jazz.

MC: Believe it or not, not until I moved to New York. When I was living in the Dominican. I was playing mostly hard bop, and trying to stay as much in the tradition as possible. But when I moved to New York, somehow in my playing, something sounding Latin would pop up. And the musicians on the bandstand would just go crazy with that stuff. "We like that stuff, what was that? Do more of that." And that's how, I guess, I brought out my roots in my music, by bringing my Latin identity and incorporating it in the jazz language. And also because of nostalgic reasons, somehow a way of linking back to my roots and finding my identity, musically. I used things that I took for granted that I grew up listening to.

AAJ: In your native music, was there improvisation in that, or was it more a rhythmic influence?

MC: There was some improvisation. My uncle could play some boogie-woogie and once and a while he would attempt to play some stride piano, as well. But in the Caribbean there is a word equivalent to jam session and that's a word I use for one of the pieces in the album: descarga. It means like a jam, or jamming. So Latin music has always had the descarga, a moment when you improvise.

When I started playing jazz, I had a trio with two friends down there and we used to play in this Bohemian place where only the painters and sculptors and the poets and the actors would show up. Every Thursday night we would just go there and play. At the beginning, the audience was like five people. Later on, when I had moved to New York, I became the musical director of the Heineken Jazz Festival in the Dominican, we got the audience all the way up to 6,000 people — sold out — which is amazing, to see how many jazz fans there are.

AAJ: When you came to New York, you did some studying at Julliard as well?

MC: Yes. Even thought I had graduated from the Dominican National Conservatory, and had played with the symphony and all that down there, I wanted to learn here how they taught piano playing and music theory and composition and all that.

AAJ: Was it a little different?

MC: Oh yeah. Very different. Because down in the Caribbean, they teach more like the French system. And here they teach the American system. So I was lucky enough to get great teachers. All of that really helped me develop musically and expand my horizons. But at the same time, I was going to jam sessions in the evening. And sitting in as much as I could and trying to network with my generation and trying to form my own band and all that.

My first break came when Tito Puente invited me to go abroad. I went to the Montreal Jazz Festival with him. He hadn't heard of me and I was recommended to him when his pianist couldn't make that particular concert. So he took me, with no rehearsal, just with tapes, I had to go there. It went pretty good. It went so good, that Paquito D'Rivera was in the audience and he hired me right there on the spot. And that's how I became a member of his band. I recorded two albums and was with him for at least four years and toured with him all over the world. It was a great experience. Paquito was a very generous leader. We would learn a lot from each other in that band. He used to call it a little school, because everybody was developing their voices and their styles and trying to somehow find out how to mix your roots with the mainstream, working it out on stage. There's nothing like that.

AAJ: You worked with Dizzy?

MC: Yeah. In fact when I started a festival down in the Dominican, I invited Dizzy to be sort of like the godfather.

AAJ: Yeah, being the one that started all that, integrating the Latin with jazz.

MC: Yeah. He's one of the reasons why people that come from the Latin culture feel that we can tackle jazz. He found a way of really using both languages and making it into a style. So I invited him, because I knew Mario Bauza, who was a mentor to Dizzy. And Mario connected me with Dizzy and he very graciously came down and played with us. He played with my band backing him up. From that experience, that's why I recorded "Con Alma" on this record. That evening we played it as an encore, just the two of us — piano and trumpet. It was the closing night of the festival, really late, after midnight, and it was just magical, what happened. So I included it on this album as kind of a souvenir. Nice moment.

Dizzy was such a generous guy. And once in a while we would meet in Europe at the festivals. He would surprise us and show up. I remember one evening in Italy at a festival, I would hear a big voice screaming from the wings and I would turn around and there is Dizzy with Phil Woods and Cedar Walton, you know? It's nice what happens in jazz when your idols or your mentors show up to check you out. It's really great when that happens. And they support you that way, and inspire you. Later on, at some point in the middle of those tours, I had the opportunity to sit down with Dizzy and talk about jazz, living the jazz life. Which is part of it, it's not just playing it but living it as well.

AAJ: Was the Carnegie Hall [1985] debut also a big break?

MC: I would say so. Because what happened was Tania Maria, the Brazilian pianist and singer, she used to come and hear me at an uptown club. It used to be one of the big hangouts uptown in Manhattan. She used to come to hear me there, but I used to play with my sextet. At that time I didn't perform with a trio. I didn't dare to do that in New York. But she insisted that she wanted me to open up for her at Carnegie Hall, but in a trio format. That concert went very well with the audience and the reviews were great and somehow we discovered something that evening together, me and my sidemen. And from there, then I had the idea of recording some pieces. On my first record for a Japanese label, called Why Not?, I included some trio pieces as well as some sextet pieces. And that went well. I developed more of a language with a trio.

AAJ: That particular tune "Why Not" went well for you, did it not?

MC: It's funny how things happen. [laughter] It's like being in the right spot at the right time. Because what happened is I was playing at the club that was owned by the Brecker Brothers, Seventh Avenue South, and Janis Siegel, the singer with the Manhattan Transfer, lived across the street. One evening, as I was performing "Why Not?" she walked into the club. She loved the song and she asked me to have lyrics written for it, and then she presented it to the group and they recorded it and in 1983 they got a Grammy award with it for best jazz vocal. So that helped also.

All those little experiences, I think, kind of solidify you and they push you ahead, right? To keep on going and do your thing.

AAJ: You are also very involved in classical music.

MC: Yeah. It's amazing how that thing happened. I had not stopped practicing classical music. I do it because it keeps me in touch with my instrument and because it lets me have the command to play what I hear inside. When I did my first release for Sony, my American debut album [Michel Camilo] I went for a showcase in France, in Cannes, and played with my trio there. And then, the Lebeque sisters, Katia and Marielle, who are a famous classical piano duo, they were also recording at that time for Sony Classical. They were there that evening performing and then they stayed over to check me out because they heard there was a classically trained jazz pianist. They liked so much what I did, they started commissioning me to write stuff for them and to write transcriptions of my jazz pieces for two pianos. Eventually they commissioned me to write a rhapsody for the Philharmonic Orchestra of London. It's incredible, because they started playing my repertoire, and that's how eventually Leonard Slatkin heard some of my work and he started buying the albums and I got invited to play with him.

But before that, he was conducting here at Lincoln Center in New York, the New York Philharmonic, and then he went with the Lebeques to see me at the Blue Note after he finished the concert. He liked my approach to the piano and he came over to the dressing room and said, "can you write a piano concerto" and I said, "Well I can try. It would be easier to learn one of the concertos that exists." [laughter] He said, "No, I want you write something of yours that sounds like you and that has some jazz elements and some Caribbean elements." I eventually recorded it with him as well.

Before then, I toured with the Lebeques in France with three pianos, performing everything, from Ellington to Monk to Bartok, to Stravinsky. We did a big tour with the three pianos and it went really well. So it's good to delve into music. They told me, "You're classically trained?" I said, "Yeah, of course." They said, "We can tell you're still practicing." I said, "OK, OK." [laughter] That's always good, when they tell you you're playing well.

AAJ: Do you consider yourself a jazz musician?

MC: Oh yeah. All the way. The reason why I started playing jazz is that I fell in love with this concept of improvising and the liberty that it poses. And also the challenge that it poses to the musician. Because you have to come up with all these new ideas right on the stage, every night. And hopefully they'll be fresh and they'll be interesting. But that risk element is really what attracted me. That's because, I started writing my own songs when I was 5 and a half, and there's a side of me that is a composer, all the time. I felt that's the ultimate. You get to play great music, and at the same time you get to compose right in front of the audience. So, I love that — how your juices flow, how the adrenaline pumps when you go on stage. You really don't know what you're going to do, but somehow you try to make sense out of it. Even though the structure of a song is the same, pretty much, there is so much freedom of expression there. And I love that.

AAJ: You've got two CDs out about the same time.

MC: Yeah. The classical one is the one that has my work. It has a piano concerto, and then it has a suite for piano, strings and harp, as well solo improvisation in my piece, "Caribe." But the suite is more jazz flavored than classical. It's in four movements. The piano concerto follows the legit classical structure, the three movements. But there is a lot of jazz elements as well in there. It's just that it's in a classical format, strictly speaking.

The way it worked out is that both records sort of came out at the same time, even though the classical one was released in Europe last August. But in the states, they delayed it because of September 11. So it just came out in February. And I recorded that with the BBC Symphony in London, with Leonard Slatkin conducting.

The Telarc [ Triangulo ] is supposed to come out March 26, so that's the way it worked out. I guess it will be a nice year for me, [laughter] to have my foot in both worlds, right?

AAJ: Not too many people do that.

MC: I like to live dangerously [laughter]. I like to challenge myself constantly.

AAJ: And the trio is Anthony Jackson on bass and El Negro [Horacio Hernandez] on drums.

MC: Yes. And they're both great friends of mine first. And then amazing musicians. And I'm very happy to have them. I've been touring with them for the last five or six years, all over the world. That's why I took my time. If you look at my discography, you'll see that my last trio CD was recorded in 1996. In between then, I did other projects. I appeared with the trio in the movie Calle 54. It's a great movie dedicated to Latin jazz and some of the artists. But there we play one piece as a trio on that particular soundtrack. But at the same time I did an encounter with a flamenco musician, as a duet. With Tomatito. The record is called Spain. It's good to come around full circle. Those five years gave me a chance to develop new ideas and new language with Anthony and Negro, by playing so much all over, in all kinds of environments. For large audiences and small audiences.

AAJ: You've been all around the world doing music, how are the audiences? Do they change in Europe? What's the flavor out there for jazz music?

MC: They're always different everywhere you go. One of the biggest lessons I learned was in Stockholm once, at a famous jazz club there, when, in between numbers the audience would barely applaud. That's the way they listen to the music there. At the end, they exploded. I thought they weren't enjoying it. I was really spooked. [laughter] I just said, "OK, I'll just do my thing and who knows?" But you learn to respect that. Every audience is different. If you're sincere and honest with your playing, somehow you click and the audience tunes in. We are spoiled here in New York, because people applaud your solos and they interact with you throughout the set. It's not the same everywhere else. It's very different. You just have to go out and do your thing.

AAJ: Do you find there's a good interest and hunger for good jazz music?

MC: I would say yes. Right now, we're living in an incredible golden era. The audiences are huge everywhere I go. They get sold out, all the concerts. And the interest is unbelievable, from the young, which is the future of our music, not just the older folks, but the young ones. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Japan. The Japanese audience is the youngest one. Because they start from when they are like 14 or 15 to come to a concert. The jazz clubs support a young audience, because they have a student rate for entrance. Thursday evenings, they sell standing room for the students at half price. And that is very good for nurturing the audience. You can see it. They're soaking it in and they really get to be fans for life. And that's what you want. You want them to go with you in your musical journey.

You'd be surprised, in South America there is a big jazz audience as well. Especially in the Caribbean basin. I would say safely that all the islands have at least one jazz festival. And they're big. I've been going to the Puerto Rico Heineken Jazz Fest for the last five years. And there it happens four nights in a row, outdoors and the audience is at least 4,000 people every night. Even Berklee College of Music comes with some teachers for the festival week and they teach there, then they give a scholarship to the best student to bring to Boston. So there's a lot of interest.

And of course there's the Cuba one. The one in Havana is huge. I got invited to that one by Chucho Valdez, who's a very good friend. We have collaborated together. We have played duets all over Europe, as well. And here at Carnegie Hall.

So it's really good to see that jazz is expanding so good, so fast.

AAJ: You have a rigorous schedule. You seem to be busy and things are going well.

MC: I can't complain. You know, when I moved to New York at the beginning of the 80s, things were a little bit darker, in a way. The prognosis for jazz was not that good. I remember reading that jazz was dead. I said, "Oh my god, I got here late!" [laughter] I was really in shock. But luckily from the mid-80s on, I guess with all the young blood that came, things started moving slowly but surely upward for jazz. The 90s, of course, jazz really took off. And nowadays we live in that golden era, which is worldwide. Because the rest of the world caught up to what was going on here in the US. It's a good thing. I'm glad it's going on like that. I hope it lasts.

But I can see the young blood and the young players that are coming up. It's really good to see that the music keeps on standing.

Visit Michel Camilo on the web at www.michelcamilo.com .



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