Michel Camilo: Pianist for a Golden Era
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  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?