Michel Camilo: Pianist for a Golden Era
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.