Thunder in the Hall: Michel Camilo at Lincoln Center

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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Camilo has few technical peers, but, unlike some of them, thunder isn't the whole story...
Michel Camilo's Grammy-winning Live at the Blue Note has already been thoughtfully reviewed by two of my AAJ colleagues ( Franz Matzner and Joel Roberts ). Both of them note Camilo's virtuosity and classical roots, using words like "dazzling" and "astound[ing]" to describe his performance. In concert, all of this applies, with added dimensions of personal warmth and visible energy, as well as material that did not appear on the CD.

On September 29, 2004, this included the opening number, an improvised duet between Camilo and his percussionist/compatriot Guarionex Aquino, who conjured the promise of a hot tropical morning with his various bird calls, shakers of different sizes, and a tiny bell. Another bonus was the exuberant "From Within," from the Calle 54 film, and an extended, achingly tender version of "The Magic in You," which Camilo wrote for his wife, Sandra, and clearly played to her that night; at the end, he blew a kiss into the audience. There were also great percussive moments, like Camilo trading twos with drummer Dafnis Prieto and fours with Aquino; the rhythmfest left big open spaces for the congas and djembe, particularly when the bass and drums left the stage. And Camilo's untitled solo encore was transcendent.

Camilo played Alice Tully Hall as the crowning event of this year's Dominican Week, the eighth annual celebration of friendship and cross-pollination between the Dominican Republic and New York City; among the sponsors were Banco Popular Dominicano and Con Edison. The evening included a champagne reception, which explained all the surprising glitter in the audience (these days, concert attire includes jeans, no matter how lofty the venue). Camilo's favorite-son status was evident the moment he stepped onstage, when the place erupted in passionate applause and cheers.

Camilo introduced the concert as a "record of [his] musical journey," starting from his roots in the Dominican Republic. Prefacing the jubilant "Cocowalk," which opens the CD, he explained that he was inspired by the second-line rhythm during a trip to New Orleans. "I hope you enjoy it," he said simply. It was impossible not to.

For me, the major perque of a live Camilo performance is the sheer fascination of watching his hands blur (there are no stronger wrists in jazz), and witnessing the joyful grins and signals between bandmembers. The other two players were Charles Flores on bass (on the CD) and Dafnis Prieto on drums (not), both Cuban, both fantastic, who juggled all the complex, incendiary rhythms and shifting dynamics with broad smiles on their faces.

Michel (pronounced with a hard "ch," as in "chair") is a monster player who looks nothing like a monster. Rather slight and balding, with a sweet, open face and romantic dark eyes, he seemed geniuinely humbled by the ovations he kept getting, and responded with relaxed good humor to the occasional call from the audience ("IncredEEble, Michel!" one man yelled, probably the same one who shouted "Viva Mongo Santamaria!" after "Mongo's Blues").

For my money, no one integrates jazz and Latin music better than Camilo, whose ouput has been consistently excellent in the first 20 years of his career. Justly celebrated for his compositions, he's also known for the versatile beauty of his sound. Camilo has few technical peers, but, unlike some of them, thunder isn't the whole story: there's grace, sensitivity, and humor in his playing. That night, his wit was most obvious in the playful "Tequila," though the reaction wasn't as boisterous in cavernous Alice Tully Hall as it was on the CD, recorded as it was at the notoriously knee-to-knee Blue Note. (I also think people make more noise when they know they're being recorded; they hoot for immortality — even if it's anonymous.)

This concert was more than two hours long, with no intermission. Camilo's endurance is another marvel, for he was just as clean and powerful all the way through. Mine was somewhat less marvelous: despite being a devoted fan, I was ultimately worn out by the sustained intensity of his music. There were several ballads in the set, including the luscious "Twilight Glow," but apparently there weren't enough places where my ears could catch their breath (ouch, sorry).

Meanwhile, Camilo's immaculate playing and the precision of his stops and starts — those small moments of silence between thunderbursts — had finally gotten to my companion, a gifted jazz artist herself whose taste runs to freer expression. As we walked out, she voiced her deep admiration for Camilo, but also her longing to hear something "dirtier." I knew what she meant. Although the night was full of spontaneous improvisation, and at high-risk speeds, the fires never left their borders. Whether this is a drawback or not depends on the listener. For me, the concert only increased my appreciation of Michel Camilo's astonishing gifts.

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