Review: Michel Camilo Trio at Ronnie Scott’s

Michel Camilo Trio
(Ronnie Scott’s, 11th May 2013. Review by Alison Bentley)

It’s 25 years since pianist Michel Camilo last played at Ronnie’s, and they’d brought in a Steinway concert grand for him. It took up most of the stage, but there was just about room for his US bassist Lincoln Goines and drummer Cliff Almond. It was hard to believe we were listening to just a trio. The opening tune, Camilo’s own From Within, drew so much excitement from the Saturday night crowd, that it sounded as if he’d begun with the encore. Camilo has played with Tito Puente and Paquito D’Rivera, and his arrangements for the trio had all the drama and colours of a big band: the dynamics were ferocious- from pp to ff in seconds.

Camilo’s piano technique was startling. He trained classically in his native Dominican Republic, and at New York’s Juilliard School. As a teenager, he heard Art Tatum on the radio and knew instantly he wanted to play jazz. You could hear some Tatum in Camilo’s rich opening style, stirred in with a sprinkling of Bach and somersaulting Listz-like arpeggios. Camilo likes to take audiences on a ‘journey’, and as the groove settled into a cha cha, we were right there with him. His solo had the singing rhythms of Chick Corea, but Camilo drew more on the repeated musical patterns of his Latin background. The mood changed: My Secret Place began with slow, liquid pentatonic piano. Camilo coaxed extraordinary sounds out of the instrument- here it had the percussive resonance of a Japanese koto. The brushes on the cymbals were like hummingbird wings. The piano solo had trills and ornamentations, Herbie Hancock-like phrasing and taut delicacy, then lush Shearing-style block chords. It felt very calming after the heady rush of the first tune. Goines grinned as Camilo played something particularly daring- you felt the trio were appreciating each other.

Repercussions is on Camilo’s album Spirit of the Moment, Camilo’s term for improvising in the moment- it’s ‘very difficult to capture, because it’s so elusive.’ Expressing emotion through music is very important to him, and the trio had a volatile quality, jumping suddenly from the intimate to the wild. The crash cymbal caught our attention as the drums slipped into fast swing, just a stick on the ride cymbal. The trio grew increasingly boisterous, with blustering left hand chords in fourths and fifths, McCoy meeting Corea. The bass solo was dramatic, yet had very precise intonation; Goines stood very serene and still as his hands created a storm. The tune built into an almost Bad Plus-like rock energy.

Camilo tours constantly (90-100 gigs a year), and the Ronnie’s dates came after a week at NY’s Blue Note Club- next stop, Copenhagen. His tune Hello and Goodbye seemed appropriately titled. The samba grooves and Cuban bass lines culminated in a piano solo based on montunos, expanded or exploded, hands bouncing off the keys at twice normal speed, with chattering staccato quavers. It was almost too fast for human hearing. Poinciana showed their gentle Latin side, its dreamy suspended chords hanging in the air, offering infinite possibilities, the sumptuous bass tone lulling us into the rhythm. Camilo had an eerie way of manipulating the keys and pedals, so it sometimes sounded as if he was stroking the piano strings. His composition Sammy Walked In had a 60s bluesy feel (he started out playing hard bop in the Dominican Republic, before moving to NY in 1979 and rediscovering his musical roots). The cha cha, with rimshots emulating a guiro and timbales, evolved into a hip-swivelling Sidewinder. Camilo played increasingly complex montunos across the drum solo, as if the piano itself were a drum kit. Cue more happy yells from the audience.

To misquote Dorothy Parker, Camilo had run the gamut of emotions from A-Z. To quote Camilo, there was: ‘… that indescribable magic that happens when everything falls into the right place, when we hear things the same way and complement each other perfectly, and the energy is just right.’

Michel Camilo’s solo album What’s Up has just been released on Okeh / Redondo

Categories: miscellaneous

Leave a Reply