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Michel Camilo: Pianist for a Golden Era

By Published: March 1, 2004
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.

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