Michel Camilo: From Dominica to Spain and Back Again

Derrick A. Smith By

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Jazz is by its own nature a never ending exploration and expression of your most inner thoughts and feelings, so innovation should be present each time you improvise...
This interview was first published at All About Jazz in July 2000.

After performing more than 40 concerts together, longtime friends Michel Camilo and Tomatito recorded Spain, an album that fuses their respective backgrounds of Latin Jazz and flamenco. Spain was released in the country of its title in 1999 to wide critical acclaim and strong sales. At its best, the disc incorporates both broad styles into a third stream that belongs solely to Camilo/Tomatito. Their backgrounds provide points of mutual interest and rapport, but each has made his own path.

Camilo was born in the Dominican Republic in 1954, into a musical family in which his talents grew early, starting on accordion but settling on the piano before entering his teens. By age 16, he was playing with the Dominican National Symphony Orchestra; he studied at Juillard; and his subsequent career in jazz included a stint as sideman for Paquito D'Rivera and recordings for Epic, Columbia, and now Verve.

Tomatito is similarly accomplished, but the arc of his career has extended mainly through Europe, where flamenco has been continuously regenerated. Slightly younger than Camilo, the flamenco guitarist was born in Spain in 1958, to a renowned family of Gypsy musicians.

Spain is their first album together. Michel Camilo's busy schedule—including a concert at Lincoln Center in Washington, D.C.—did not permit him to speak by phone, but he was able to answer some questions by email in mid-June, illuminating the creation of the new album.

All About Jazz: Thank you for the taking the time to answer these questions, and welcome to All About Jazz.

Michel Camilo: You are welcome.

AAJ: The new album Spain demonstrates your ability to draw from your influences, such as music of the Romantic composers, in terms of technique and harmonic approach, while almost never replicating them the way some other pianists tend to do. Instead you're concerned with the melodic development of each piece. What is your reason for playing in this way?

MC: I've always thought that one of the most difficult things in jazz is to develop your own "voice" in your instrument, so I'm glad that you picked up on this! I believe that Spain gave me a great opportunity to work on a more melodic approach to each piece than I would usually do with my trio, since playing with a flamenco guitar is definitely different than playing with a rhythm section (your left hand becomes the rhythm section) and you must be extra careful on how your improvisational lines are going to fit harmonically and texturally with the accompaniment.

AAJ: Aside from your originals, how did you and Tomatito choose the repertoire for the album?

MC: Before we recorded the album we had performed close to forty concerts in Spain, Switzerland, Italy, Japan and the Dominican Republic. Each time we got together we were coming back from our individual tours and projects with lots of ideas and would talk about our musical experiences. Sometimes if there was a piano in the dressing room we would show each other a new piece and try it right away at the concert, then if we felt good about how it went we would keep it in the repertoire and work out its melodic, harmonic and rhythmic possibilities from concert to concert. This could also take place at the sound checks.

AAJ: You were born in the Dominican Republic, into a musical family. What is the primary aspect of music to which you can remember responding as a child: rhythm, melody, texture? And what is the first composition you remember enjoying?

MC: Melody, all the way! There is nothing like a beautiful melody, it has the power to control or trigger your personal mood swings (although rhythm would be a close second...). The first composition I remember enjoying as a child was "La Comparsa" by Cuban renown pianist Ernesto Lecuona, performed by my favorite uncle at the piano.

AAJ: Where do flamenco, jazz, classical, and Latin American forms intersect musically, emotionally, and intellectually?

MC: There is a special "lament feel" in flamenco music called "cante jondo" which is very close to the blues feel in jazz. I think this is what Miles Davis was trying to play in Sketches of Spain. Then, on the other hand, I usually joke with Tomatito and tell him that it's better that flamenco is more of an oral tradition and that he can't read music since this way he doesn't notice how intricate the harmonies, melodies, rhythms and structural forms of flamenco truly are; in that sense they are very close to classical music. Finally, there is a lot in common rhythmically and emotionally between flamenco and Latin American forms like the rumba for example which is present in both cultures.

AAJ: Your playing with Tomatito on Spain is very natural—you often sound like two extensions of a single performer. Did this rapport come about solely because of your many live performances together, or is there something else?

MC: That's the whole idea! We wanted to challenge ourselves with an unusual "sound"—an acoustic piano and a flamenco guitar "totally naked" (without any accompaniment at all)—which required greater attention to detail since it was going to be so transparent. Also, we had to learn to trust each other's sense of "time" and develop a mutual confidence that the other person would know where the beat was at all times. Finally, we had to work on the sense of "air" so that there would be plenty of looseness to our playing.

I think that the rapport came from the fact that we were first personal friends some years before we ever dreamed of playing together. Then, when the call came from the Barcelona Jazz Festival in November 1997 to invite us to perform together as a duo it was lots of fun! The initial concert went so well that the "word of mouth" started spreading and finally it was the audience which requested that we record this album since all we wanted to do was to keep on playing concerts together.

AAJ: What is most important in the playing of jazz: tradition or innovation? Does this apply to any kind of music?

MC: Both are important. You have to know where you are coming from in order to know where you are going to. At the same time jazz is by its own nature a never ending exploration and expression of your most inner thoughts and feelings, so innovation should be present each time you improvise like it or not.

I would say that yes, this would apply to any kind of music since each style has its own tradition and development; although the latter is never as relevant or important as in jazz.

AAJ: What influence has the new album had on your artistry? Has the experience with Tomatito given you a different perspective?

MC: I consciously tried to "say more with less notes" on my piano playing even though there are plenty of virtuoso runs, textures, rhythm, etc. present in Spain, but because of the intimate quality of the flamenco guitar I had to be more discreet and not overpowering. At the same time, being with Tomatito -who is a true gipsy-gave me a slightly different outlook on some of life values, for instance he cares a lot about honor, family, fun and friends; sometimes even more than we've come to expect from today's fast paced modern society. It's been a great time!
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