Pianist Michel Camilo studied classical music in his native Dominican Republic, before moving to New York in 1979. He composes, records and performs in jazz, latin and classical styles. He won his third Latin Jazz Grammy for his 2013 solo piano album “What’s Up”, and has also won a classical Grammy for his recording of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”.
He talked to Alison Bentley about arranging pieces for solo piano, his musical influences, playing in Broadway shows, mentoring Esperanza Spalding and Hiromi, and his own mentors Dizzy Gillespie and Tito Puente.
London Jazz News: What made you decide to make a solo album again- it’s ten years since the last one? (“Solo”, 2005)
Michel Camilo: First of all I like to take my time, so it sounds fresh. Each album of mine is like telling a new story. I think of them as open books. Particularly this one, I call it an open book of possibilities. I like to have an architecture to it. As you can see, I wanted to reflect on the different influences that I have as a player. The first one was more mellow- it had more Brazilian influences.
LJN: My feeling was with the new album, the harmonies seem more complex?
MC: Exactly. The idea was to mark an evolution, and also to pay tribute to some of the influences that marked me as a jazz player. I specifically wanted to pay tribute to Dave Brubeck, a big influence from early on. And also I got to meet him over the years- we became good friends. Last time I saw him was at the Newport Jazz Festival. I told him I was working on adapting Take Five for solo piano, and he was thrilled about that idea. It took me a year to adapt it, the ostinato for the left hand.
LJN: It sounds slightly more Latin?
MC: [Laughs] It was quite a challenge. In this album particularly, there was a lot of left hand work.
And there’s a very personal reason for this album. I lost my bass player Charles Flores to cancer. He was with me for twelve years with my trios. So I couldn’t see myself doing another trio album. This album was very special, to go solo. A lot of the left hand work in a way is a reminiscence of how he interacted with me. If you see the cover of the album, my left hand is up! So the bass is underpinning. The solo language is quite a challenge for any pianist. For me it was very important to have a rainbow, a palette of colours present in this project, and textures and nuances to keep the listener interested, as they’re exposed to each one of the numbers. I think of it as a book: prologue, and epilogue, and each chapter relates to the other. So there’s a continuity throughout the album.
LJN: It feels like watching a film with lots of moods.
MC: I’m glad. It’s important, because for many years I hesitated to do even solo work. I had many offers but I turned them all down. I said, ‘I’m not ready yet.’ And that’s why I took my time to record the first solo album, and the second too. When the theatre has good acoustics, I do it completely acoustically, which is a thrill for the audience and myself. I premiered this album at the Opera House in Bern in Switzerland at the jazz festival. It was great to play all this material acoustically. How is the QEH? Are there good acoustics? It’s important to do this kind of concert.
LJN: You travel constantly, and talk about the importance of absorbing different kinds of music from different cultures, and countries that you play in. Have you done that particularly on this solo album?
MC: I did a lot of travel to Turkey. I didn’t realise that the 5/4 beat of Take Five has a Turkish element in it until I went there and played it and the audiences reacted to it in a big way. Apparently Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond were influenced by some Turkish rhythms. I discovered that while I was doing it there. The audience went crazy for it.
LJN: And other music?
MC: Of course, my Classical training. There are moments almost like I’m playing a Chopin Nocturne- A Place in Time, steady left hand pattern there. And actually I have a touch of what they call the Milonga, from Argentina. So it’s a kind of lament. And that’s specifically a piece that I recorded with Charles [Flores], so I revisited it in a solo language here, reminiscent about our partnerships over the years.
And the opening track is a romp, in a way, from my New Orleans visits, and it’s entitled What’s Up? It’s festive in a way- it’s asking, ‘What’s up with you? Where are you off to?’ You know, New Orleans has that kind of vibe; it’s nice for solo piano as well. A little bit of ragtime, a little bit of honky-tonk- all those flavours, I threw them in there.
LJN: You’ve talked in the past about studying stride piano?
MC: Yes, I was always into stride piano. One of my biggest influences was Art Tatum. You can hear that in some of my takes of standards- Alone Together on this album. It’s very important to refer to this vision so you can take it further in the future.
LJN: I almost hear some rock in “Paprika?”
MC: [Laughs] Well, you know, that’s quite a tour de force. I like to challenge myself- that’s how you evolve as an artist- you’ve got to be creative, and at the same time take some risks. And Paprika definitely is a big risk, because it requires all that stamina and at the same time clarity of thought in a nanosecond, to be able to keep it together- and explore all these different textures as they contrast with each other. Paprika itself is like a spicy piece.
Chan Chan from Buena Vista Social Club, by Segundo –that was another challenge. It’s like a sacred cow- I had to deal with it, challenge myself to go even deeper into the song. The song lyrics talk about a love story. So I thought, how do I take this song, which is basically four chords, and bring it closer to the jazz language, and explore different textures? So I decided I was going to approach it on different levels and plateaus- moments of improvisation. And there’s definitely a contrast between each section, including the modulation. I modulated it up a minor third to create an intensity, and then brought it back to the original key. Then made it very sparse, the next section too- in a way it’s deconstructing the piece. I changed the harmonies as well, and tried to put in some extra clusters. You can take some extra chances with it and open up the charts.
LJN: You’ve talked about the importance of being in the moment, and the spirit of improvisation. Do you find you can do that more with solo piano?
MC: Yes, definitely, because I just let my creative juices flow, and go with it. Most of these tracks were first takes, including Take Five! On YouTube you can see a video of the actual take, and Love For Sale as well.
LJN: I was going to ask you about Cole Porter, because on the album there’s also “On Fire”, using the chords to his “Too Darn Hot”?
MC: Cole Porter, besides being a great composer of jazz standards, wrote for Tin Pan Alley as well. That relates to some of my first times in New York. Most people don’t know that I did work on Broadway as well. I was at the Juilliard School, and I was also working on a Broadway show, by the great Bob Fosse- Dancing. So I was exposed to Broadway for five or six years. I worked in another show called Merlin too. I was exposed to Tin Pan Alley, and all those songs and composers. That’s where you see my connection to Gershwin as well.
It was an important formation for me as a player too. That’s why I put Love For Sale in there. I made a kind of funky approach to it- a little bit of R&B as well- take it to a different place. I feel a big connection harmonically speaking to Bill Evans. He’s always been a big influence of mine. He was a master of reharmonisation of standards. I try to relate to him as well, in the soft passages. All of this comes into play- that’s why this album was so special to me. I called it a process of self-discovery, as a player, as a creative artist, as a jazz improviser.
LJN: You once gave some advice to students- they should make choices in life that make them feel the best about themselves. Is that what you’ve done?
MC: It’s important- once they find that inner place that we all have, then the music flows. If you’re feeling good about yourself and your playing, then you can really start sharing with your audience what you’re all about.
LJN: Is teaching important to you?
MC: Very important- I don’t do it enough, I think. I do a lot of masterclasses around the world, including children. It’s wonderful to see their expression as they discover the music. They have a ball and so do I- it’s wonderful to share with the young generation and inspire them.
LJN: You taught Hiromi and Esperanza Spalding?
MC: Those are my prize stars! They were both in my masterclasses at Berklee. You get invited for three years to do one a week- each day, you pick your own subject. I taught improvisation, composition, orchestration, arranging, interaction- make then play then stop in the middle, and ask, ‘Why did you play that? Listen to what you’re doing.’ Make them conscious of what they’re playing off each other. Esperanza was in one of those ensembles and it was wonderful- we did a concert. Hiromi- we even play piano duets-really exciting! She’s a very bright pianist and wonderful improviser. I was playing in the Opera City Hall in Tokyo- solo piano, and the second half was with the chamber orchestra- my suite for piano, strings and harp. At that time she didn’t play in concert halls in her country. I said, ‘How come?’ She didn’t feel ready. I made that concert a three-part concert and invited her-‘You’re playing the second half with me, duo pianos.’ That concert was outstanding, and after that, the rest is history.
LJN: Is there someone who did that for you in your career?
MC: Dizzy Gillespie did that for me, when he played with me down in my country. I invited him to open the first jazz festival there, which I was directing, to give it a seal of approval. I was still studying here in New York and I had met Jorge Dalto, who was an Argentinian pianist- he was playing at that time with George Benson and Tito Puente. He had a conflict- he couldn’t go to play at the Montreal Jazz Festival with Tito. He heard me play in New York, so he recommended me to Tito, who had never heard me play, but he called me out of the blue. In fact, I thought it was a joke: ‘I need a pianist! I’m Tito Puente!’ I said, ‘Come on, don’t joke with me.’ ‘I need a pianist and I’m going to send you a cassette- you learn the music and I’ll meet you onstage! Jorge speaks marvellously about you, so I’m sure you’re a good player.’ There’s even a DVD of that concert. It was really wonderful, because Paquito d’Rivera was at that concert- he checked me out and hired me on the spot, and that’s how I became a member of his Quintet. That’s the beauty of jazz players, and that’s how it works- word of mouth. And there’s nothing better than that. It’s a community, like a family.
Michel Camilo, Queen Elizabeth Hall, June 13th