Michel Camilo



Michel Camilo
Michel Camilo
Force of r1ature: part 1
DAVE JONES seeks fresh insights into the piano playing and composition of the Dominican pianist once posited
as "a Latin Scott Joplin" and reports on a revelatory live show at Ronnie Scott's
Camilo's "chamber music for rhythm section"
approach to trio compositions partly explains
the origin of his 2001 album with the BBC
Symphony Orchestra for the classical label
Decca, which showcased his monumental
Concerto For Piano And Orchestra No. I.
"The concerto was commissioned by
Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra when he was music director at the Kennedy Center. This work is
written in three movements and is a kind of
personal autobiography. Maestro Slatkin
had heard my compositions performed by
Katia and Marielle Labeque and came one
evening to the Blue Note in New York as I
was performing there with my trio.
ichel Camilo is a formidable musician who performs, composes and
records in the worlds of jazz, classical, Latin, and ftlm music, and produces
and records with international pop and
merengue stars. In a recent interview with
Michel I discovered more about his
approach to piano playing and composition.
It only really scratches the surface, but I
have tried to fmd something that doesn't
duplicate the usual biographical material
and information about his technique. This is
a two-part article - in this ftrst part I'll be
looking at Michel's compositional style, and
in part two I'll be looking at his approach to
piano playing and performance.
I started by asking about Camilo's approach
to composition on his piano trio albums,
dating from his outstanding self-titled 1989
CBS release up to and including his 2007
release Spirit Of The Moment.
He says: "Each album expresses a particular
moment of my life, the musical interests
and influences I have been exposed to at
that moment. Sometimes at the jazz festivals I listen to my colleagues while waiting
for my turn to go on stage and that also
triggers in me some kind of creative
impulse. My sidemen have always inspired
me to write music that would pose a challenge to them both as performers and
"I think of my trio compositions mostly as
works of chamber music for rhythm section,
since my approach has been to try and
develop extended song forms by writing not
just 'head' melodies, but also including
interludes, tutti ensembles, unison sections,
shout choruses, polyrhythmic counterpoint,
etc. The vision of my trio is of an open
canvas of orchestral textures, as I am
always searching for the open possibilities
in a new piece.
"Everything matters: ftrst of all the interaction among the players, then a particular
cymbal tone colour, a brush stroke or crossstick at the right moment, a harmonic from
the bass, a lower or higher pitch fundamental note, the doubling of a bass line, arco or
pizz, the best dynamic to convey the song's
mood - be it festive or intimate, how dense
a tight groove or if not then a loose implied
airy beat, and so on .. . All these elements
are defmitely present in each one of my
His comments regarding extended song
forms remind me that his approach is
not unlike that of Horace Silver on, e.g.,
Nica 's Dream. Like Silver, he also successfully combines the rhythmic influences
of his native country's indigenous music
(merengue, in Camilo's case) with jazz harmony.
"He challenged me to write a piece which
would include some of the ideas he heard
that night into a larger orchestral setting. In
a way he wanted the orchestra to sound like
a giant version of my trio. So I asked him
to give me a year to compose the concerto.
I still remember when we recorded the piece
in London with the BBC Symphony Orchestra ; it was a great recording session!
'The ftrst movement starts with ancestral
sounds which I was exposed to in my childhood: the mystery of the 'santeria' AfroCaribbean religion, a traditional melody from
the mountains in the Dominican Republic
and the intense rhythmic percussive textures;
as well as some blues and modal jazz harmonies. All of these interact with each other
as this ftrst movement builds up into a celebration dance between piano and orchestra.
"The second movement expresses our
yearnings and hopes for a new life as we
(me and my wife Sandra) left our families
and friends in order to pursue our dreams.
This movement is full of wonderful and
nostalgic memories.
"The third movement is a toccata representing my encounter with the full energy and
intensity of New York. It is polyrhythmic in
nature and it is written in two parts which
are clearly divided by the timpani solo
which plays the mirror melodic inversion of
the main theme. From then on the piece will
state the melodic/harmonic mirror inversion
of the ftrst half of the movement which
eventually will develop into a big orchestral
climax right before the restatement of the
main theme and a grand fmale.
Michel Camilo
Ronnie Scotrs, 10 May 2013
Dave Jones encounters a force of nature in
pianist Michel Camilo, his mix of musical
fireworks and blistering cadenzas earning
a standing ovation
"I consider this work to be one of the highlights of my life and I am really excited that
I will be playing its lOOth performance at
the end of this year."
The concerto is peppered with melodic
phrases from Camilo's existing catalogue at
that time, but this work is no mere novelty
spin-off from his previous compositions for
jazz combos of varying sizes, and highlights
his prowess as an orchestral arranger as well
as composer and performer. The music feels
very cinematic in nature.
A particularly interesting aspect of the concerto is that Camilo plays a number of
improvised cadenzas - an important feature
of piano concertos which is rarely evident
in today's performances of the classical
repertoire. Originally, cadenzas in the classical realm were improvised by the pianist,
who was often the composer as well; however, this has all but disappeared in the
modern-day interpretation of these works,
where cadenzas are notated as part of the
score. A rare exception amongst current
classical performers in this respect is the
organist and pianist Wayne Marshall, who
uses improvisation in his interpretations.
A perhaps lesser known aspect of Camilo's
musical output is his composition of soundtracks and incidental music for f1lm. He's
been widely involved :
tal music for the soundtrack of James Brooks'
Broadcast News, as well as for George
Romero's Knightriders.
"Finally, I was featured with my trio in the
documentary Calle 54 by Fernando Trueba,
where I perform with Anthony Jackson and
Horacio 'El Negro' Hernandez my song
From Within . This is truly one of those special moments.
"This year I will be a part of a new documentary titled Playing Lecuona by Cuban
director Pavel Giroud, with duo and trio
performances of Ernesto Lecuona's music,
as well as a three-piano encounter with
Chucho Valdes and Gonzalo Rubalcaba."
Ed Morales, in his book The Latin Beat: The
Rhythms And Roots Of Latin Music From
Bossa Nova To Salsa And Beyond, has
the fo llowing to say regarding Camilo's
arguably unique compositional style, in
particular reference to the tracks Yarey and
Caribe from his self-titled 1989 CBS album:
"Rather than simply merging jazz technique
with Latin rhythms, Camilo embraces the
attitude and compositional approach of three
traditions : Jazz, Afro-Cuban, and Dominican. Yarey starts out with a funky jazz
melody, then progresses to a walking bass
line, a samba interlude, and an Afro-Cuban
tumbao. The song palpitates with the
crescendos that work off each rhythmic style.
"I have composed the soundtracks for two
award-winning romantic comedies by Spanish director Emilio Martinez-Lazaro, Amo Tu
Cama Rica and Los Peon~s Anos de Nuestra
Vida, as well as the soundtrack for Two Much
by Fernando Trueba. I also appear on camera
for the end credits performing my song
Caribe at Lincoln Road in Miami Beach with
an all-star sextet including Paquito D'Rivera
and Cachao. I had also written some inciden-
"Caribe is influenced by the style of Cuban
pianist Ernesto Lecuona. Amidst graceful
folkloric fmgerwork, Camilo inserts expressionist rhythmic interludes, giving Caribe a
hectic, ironic feeling. Picture a Latin Scott
Joplin weaving in and out of mid-town
traff1c. Camilo's work plays with a notion of
transplanted roots - it's as if he's asking
himself, how can I marry the courtly, mannered tempos of the Cuban danz6n sound
with life in New York City?"
Like Horace Silver, he
successfully combines the
rhythmic influences of his
native country's indigenous
music (merengue, in Camilo's
case) with jazz harmony
Michel Camilo has a new solo piano album
entitled What's Up, released on 14 May 2013
on the historic OKeh label. It features seven
Camilo original compositions alongside four
interpretations of standards. Michel says:
"My love for film music textures is present in
the beauty and intimacy of the most introspective ballads like Sandra's Serenade. "
My previous attempt to see pianist/composer Michel Camilo with his trio in April
2010 was foiled by a force of nature (the
Icelandic ash cloud) , but on Friday 10 May
at 8.30pm at Ronnie Scott's I encountered
a different force of nature, this time a musical one, in the shape of Camilo alongside
drummer Cliff Almond and bassist Lincoln
On this occasion, Camilo's set (entirely of
his own compositions except for Alfonsina
Y El Mar by A. Ramirez) was drawn from
three of his studio albums spanning over
two decades (Mono A Mono from 2011 ,
Spirit Of The Moment from 2007, and On
Fire from 1989), but it focused mainly on
material from the more recent of these
together with See You Later which was
commissioned for and first performed at
the 2002 San Francisco Jazz Festival, and
appeared on his 2003 Live At The Blue
Note album.
This was the first time that I'd heard Co milo
on a club date, having previously enjoyed
the BBC Proms UK premiere of his Concerto
For Piano And Orchestra No. I in 2001 at
the Royal Albert Hall with the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard
Slatkin . What was striking at Ronnie's,
despite the small-group context, was the
often orchestral sound of his trio, and the
huge dynamic range achieved from
extremely delicate piano solo introductions through to the musical fireworks of
the exchanges between Camilo and
Almond that punctuated this memorable
set. Rarely have I heard Ronnie's so quiet
during piano introductions, with the nature
of Camilo's performance demanding the
attention of the audience.
There's an element of performance drama
about Camilo's part-functional mopping of
his brow with one hand and playing the keyboard with the other during solo piano introductions, as if he were an operatic tenor
recovering from a physically and mentally
demanding period of singing during orchestral interludes. It's really all part of the show
from someone who with great success
brings the performance demeanour of the
classical concert hall to the jazz club. This
was an intense, relentless and physically
demanding performance of some 85 minutes which the trio were to simulate later that
evening. Given the demanding nature of his
compositions and jazz piano style, it says
much of Camilo that he has the pianistic
stamina (born of a formidable technique) to
sustain this level of intensity for so long.
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