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Michel Camilo: Pianist for a Golden Era

R.J. DeLuke By

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The reason why I started playing jazz is that I fell in love with this concept of improvising and the liberty that it poses... I love that... how your juices flow, how the adrenaline pumps when you go on stage.
Michel Camilo has emerged over the last decade or so as one of the virtuoso piano players of jazz, amassing a strong and loyal following. He's classically trained, with monstrous technique and a fertile musical imagination. Naturally, because he hails from the Dominican Republic, his playing is tinged with Latin elements. It may be that the jazz world has another virtuoso to thank for Camilo choosing jazz over other musical pursuits —the legendary Art Tatum.

"The first time I heard jazz was when I was 14 and a half. I heard the great Art Tatum on the radio playing his solo piano rendition of 'Tea for Two.' That immediately caught my ear. I just wanted to soak it in, to learn to play that style. Then I found out it was jazz," he says.

Camilo is at home in both musical worlds. In fact, he's achieved that rare double: two CDs out at the same time, one in each dominion —the classical Concerto for Piano & Orchestra, Suite for Piano, Strings Harp & Caribe and the jazz trio disc Triangulo with his touring group of Anthony Jackson on bass and Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez on drums.

Camilo makes it clear that he is a jazz pianist, however. "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."

Even the classical disc, he says, contains elements of jazz.

Speaking of jazz, Camilo is very positive about its current state and it's future. Maybe it's because of his upbeat personality. Camilo is ebullient and expressive. He laughs easily and his energy is all positive. While some see the glass as half empty and some half full, Camilo seems to see it as nearly full, and if it ever was actually emptying, there's little doubt that, with his enthusiasm and obvious zest for life, that he would find a way to work around it.

"Right now, we're living in an incredible golden era," he says, eschewing the darker picture others are painting about today's jazz scene. "The audiences are huge everywhere I go. They get sold out, all the concerts. And the interest is unbelievable, from the young, which is the future of our music, not just the older folks, but the young ones."

Maybe his optimism also comes from the fact that he has a worldly view. He doesn't talk about jazz and how it appears in the United States. He speaks of how it's appreciated worldwide and how festivals, and audiences, have grown on many continents. It's not a closed view. He's not that way.

And his music, as shown on Triangulo and his other discs, is a reflection of that. His music has life. It has energy. His live performances are upbeat and reaffirming. You can feel Michel Camilo in his music.

"Michel is definitely a big connoisseur of the instrument," says Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez, drummer on the CD and a longtime member of the trio that also includes bassist Anthony Jackson. "He's a big technician and a great musician with a lot of his heritage into his music. He's Latin and Dominican. Rhythms and all that stuff in his music. And also with a lot of space for creation and for choosing. You have a lot to choose from. Sort of World Music, but the maybe main ingredient is the Afro-Caribbean music, and then jazz."

"It's great. Playing live is a joy, but going into the studio with him and Anthony Jackson, one of my favorite not only bass players, but musicians, it was a great chance to hear what we were going to do with that music," El Negro said of the new music.

Camilo agrees. "El Negro is very special. He's very flexible, that's why I love playing with Negro because he gives me all these different worlds in a moment's notice. That is a real advantage to have in my trio. As a person, we get along very well. That's an important part, because when you go on the road you're literally living together, you know? Taking planes together, waiting at airports together, and that shows on stage.

"And then with Anthony, he has been with me for at least 15 years as part of my trios, on and off. Because he worked with Michel Petrucciani when he was alive, and other people. Anthony has been a very important figure in the development of my sound, my trio sound. He's an incredible player. I consider him a genius. He invented his instrument. He calls it contrabass guitar. He has a very special technique and a lot of colors in his hands that I can draw from. He has amazing big ears. It's really a good chemistry and I'm really glad we were able to go into a studio together and capture the live spirit of our performances."

"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," the pianist says.

Triangulo has Camilo's original tunes "Piece of Cake," "Afterthought," "Anthony's Blues," and "Just Like You," "Descarga for Tito," and "dotcom-bustion." And also Latin tinged numbers written by others —"La Comparsa," (Ernesto Lecuona), "Mr. C.I," (Chano Dominguez), "Las Dos Lorettas" (Mike Manieri) —including representation by the great influence on Latin jazz, Dizzy Gillespie, with "con Alma."

Camilo's tour begins in late April in New York City and he is looking forward to making music at each opportunity. His experiences, from his upbringing in a musical family to his associations with people like Dizzy Gillespie, Paquito D'Rivera and Tito Puente, are as varied as his music. And he looks at those, too, with his wonderfully buoyant manner.

All About Jazz: You started music at an early age, playing pretty much since childhood?

Michel Camilo: My family is three generations of musicians and composers, so I grew up around the piano, so to speak.

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