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Michel Camilo: Pianist for a Golden Era

By Published: March 1, 2004
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.

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