Latin jazz artist Michel Camilo visits Carmel.
Thursday, October 28, 2004
Critics often claim that jazz has lacked a galvanizing movement or trailblazer since the death of John Coltrane in 1967. But when the history of the music’s past quarter century is written, there will be a long chapter or two on the wave of Latin American musicians who have transformed Latin jazz from a marginal movement to an essential component of the music’s pulsing mainstream.
The players at the center of this powerful tide hail from all over South and Central America. At the beginning of the wave, from the Dominican Republic, was pianist Michel Camilo.
Camilo is a virtuoso whose lightning two-handed runs and bravura rhythmic attack turn his performances into joyous celebrations. Performing solo and with his trio, featuring drummer Cliff Almond and Cuban bassist Charles Flores, Camilo will be exploring music from his double album, Live at the Blue Note, which won a Grammy last year for Best Latin Jazz Album.
The Blue Note album marked both the first time Camilo recorded a concert album and his first session accompanied by a Cuban rhythm section, with Flores and drummer Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez. “There was an internal language from the Caribbean that we share, and the roots came out,” Camilo says. “A lot of things we didn’t talk about just came out spontaneously. Here we were playing new material and we were playing it dangerously.”
Camilo’s influences range from Brazil and Cuba to his homeland and the Iberian Peninsula. “By being in the center of the Caribbean,” he says, “we got information from the south as well as the north, so I listened to a lot of Brazilian music.” His 2000 Verve album Spain, with the great flamenco guitarist Tomatito, won Best Latin Jazz Album in the first Latin Grammy Awards. Camilo is also a highly respected composer. He creates detailed arrangements, approaching each chart as an orchestrator with a particular vision.
“When I sit down and write a song, I always think about how to surprise my sidemen, how to keep them interested,” Camilo says. “I want to give them something to bite on, to challenge them and take them to a new place. I do write detailed charts, but I leave a lot of space for them to express themselves. I ask them to contribute and I’m generous with the spotlight. But I never give them the chart with too much time before the recording. They always complain, but I don’t want them to be so comfortable that the music doesn’t have an edge.”
Camilo started playing the accordion at four, developing a repertoire of waltzes, tangos, boleros and merengues. But his true love was the piano, and he convinced his parents to send him to study at the conservatory at the age of nine. He caught the jazz bug at 14.
“I was practicing my Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven and I turned on the radio and heard Art Tatum playing ‘Tea for Two’ and that was it,” Camilo says. “It was like lightning. I used to go to the radio show and just pour over the albums.”
At the urging of some American musicians, Camilo made a trip to New York, where he was pegged as one of the most promising players on the scene. He and his wife settled in the Big Apple in 1979, and he gained widespread notice when the Manhattan Transfer recorded his song “Why Not?” With his dazzling technique and thorough knowledge of Afro-Caribbean rhythms, he helped pave the way for the next generation of Latin American jazz stars who have so invigorated the scene in recent years.
Michel Camilo performs Thurs, 8pm. $55/$40/$25. Sunset Center, San Carlos and 9th, Carmel. 624-3996.