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Camilo Plays the Real Gershwin

I first heard Michel Camilo play with his trio at Founder’s Hall, which is located in the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. When the opportunity to interview him presented itself, I was thrilled. As I started doing my research on this pianist/composer, I was awe struck by his accomplishments. There are amazing musicians playing jazz piano today, but Michel does so much more. He plays classical and jazz, he interprets the masters and creates works which have in turn become classics, and he befriends and collaborates with the very finest musicians the world over. He receives awards, honors, accolades at a rate that is difficult to stay abreast of. This month March 2006 Michel is the Steinway Artist of the Month. Plus, he was one of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve ever done.

The performance at Founder’s Hall was a moment in musical history. This piano, bass and drums trio was sensational and all but exploded in the intimate and acoustically superb venue. Michel played that four-show stand with his current trio, Charles Flores on bass and Dafnis Prieto on drums. This is the trio with whom Michel is touring through the end of May.

I was very pleasantly surprised when I discovered that Michel had recorded Rhapsody in Blue with the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra on the Telarc Label. The CD is very nicely packaged and the recording is crisp clear and very easy to listen to.

Rhapsody is one of my very favorite Gershwin pieces and a piece that I have been listening to for at least the last thirty years. I have heard some excellent and some okay renditions of it and was excited by the prospect of hearing this first-rate jazz pianist play it with a first-rate orchestra.

As it turns out Michel Camilo plays Rhapsody like it was written for him. The performance has a captivating fresh feel to it. It sounds as if it is a live performance, which was what Michel went out of his way to achieve. Michel said, "I forgot to tell you that this recording has one advantage and it is for real. Before we recorded the album I made sure to play it live in front of an audience, so we performed this program three nights in a row in the same auditorium, in the same hall, so we could get used to the acoustics and we could have total confidence - all of us. Therefore, the week after we played these three concerts, which were all sold out, packed and a big success, we went back to the same auditorium and then we recorded this CD. So everybody had this inside themselves - the connection with the audience and the energy. Everyone was into it." To me, as an avid listener, this seems to be a highpoint for this mid-career artist.

Michel’s musical career started when his training began at age 9. His professional career started when he began playing with the National Symphony Orchestra of the Dominican Republic (NSODR) at the age of 16. Michel played with NSODR until he left for New York in 1979.

Michel, with nine years of classical piano in the NSODR, left the Dominican Republic to pursue a career as a jazz pianist. While in New York Michel studied at Mannes College and Julliard by day and played jazz on Broadway and in some of New York City’s hottest clubs by night.

In order to support himself and his wife Michel’s regular job, while at Julliard he played piano in the musical Bob Fosse’s Dancin’. Michel started out as a rehearsal pianist and then moved up to second piano, then first piano and finally associate conductor. "I was conducting the orchestra at least twice a week by the end," said Michel.

During this same time period, Michael was playing late night gigs in Mikell’s, an experimental jazz club that unlike most of the jazz scene was uptown on Columbus and 97th. This club was a venue for performers such as Art Farmer, Art Blakey, The Brothers Marsalis, George Benson and Paquito D’Rivera. After playing Mikell’s for several years, Michel moved down to midtown to another experimental club called "Soundscape."

Still in Midtown, Michel played at "7th Avenue South," a club which was opened and run by the Brecker brothers, Michael and Randy. Seventh Avenue South was in operation from 1977 to 1984 and during that time was a jazz hotspot. Michel says, "That is where I played before I moved on to the Blue Note. Right across the street lived Janis Siegel, the lead singer of the Manhattan Transfer. I mention this because in 1982, I was playing one of my songs, the one called "Why Not" and she crossed the street and when she listened to the song, she asked me to make a demo. Then she presented it to the rest of the band and that’s when the Manhattan Transfer recorded it. They won a Grammy Award the next year. That was kind of a catapult for me as a jazz composer."

Next, Michel moved into Greenwich Village and played at "The Blue Note" on Monday nights, which Michel says was "rookie night." This was in 1986 or 1987. Michel was brought to The Blue Note by Brazilian jazz pianist and vocalist, Tania Maria. Tania was a big fan of Michel’s playing and it was Tania who gave Michel his opportunity to play at Carnegie Hall as her opening act.

Michel said, "She [Tania Maria] was really sweet. She used to come to listen to me at Mikell’s and one day she invited me to play with her at Carnegie Hall with my trio. The trio was Dave Weckl on drums and Anthony Jackson on Bass. That was the seed of my trio saga, as I call it. That took twenty years until I recorded Live at the Blue Note. I kept on changing bass and drums. I had a tremendous rotation of drummers and bassists over the years. I’ve played with so many drummers and bass players, it’s incredible." Michel won the Grammy award for "Best Latin Jazz Album with Live at the Blue Note in 2004.

Michel told me that he was on his way to tour in Europe right after our interview. He said, "I was practicing today with the trio you saw; Dafnis Prieto on drums and Charles Flores on bass. We are flying on Sunday to Milan to play at The Blue Note for three nights, then we keep on going to play at La Salle Metropole in Lausanne, Switzerland, and then on to KKL Luzern which is another big theater."

I asked Michel when he started composing jazz. Michel said, "I started playing jazz when I was 14, but I didn’t write at the beginning. I started writing when I was 17 and the reason was because I came as a visitor to New York, invited by a musician who had heard me play in the NSODR, Gordon Gottlieb. He’s an incredible symphonic percussion player. When the National Theater of the Dominican Republic was inaugurated, the NSODR invited American musicians to reinforce the symphony orchestra for the month long opening celebration. That’s where I met Gordon. He came down as one of those reinforcing musicians and it was incredible. In the middle of one of the rehearsals, I sat down at the piano and started playing jazz and all of them came to the piano and wanted to know how did I know to play jazz. I said, ‘I’m learning, I’m learning.’ He invited me to come to New York and stay with him and he took me around to all the clubs. That’s when I knew that I had to come to the States at some point and I knew I had to play jazz."

I asked Michel how many albums he has recorded and of them which is his favorite. Michel said, "Seventeen if you count all the albums including sound tracks and the classical ones. I have several favorites. The very first one is a favorite because it felt like a big break. It was called Why Not. That one was a Japanese release. It was the mid-80’s and there were some Japanese scouts around the clubs in New York. I was found by one of those and my very first two albums were released first in Japan. But then in 1988, I was playing at The Blue Note and one evening Lionel Hampton was brought in by his niece, and next to him sat George Wein, the big festival promoter. The two of them knew each other for many, many years and they had a ball. At the end of the set, George Wein came to my dressing room and proposed to record me and he said ‘I’ll prove it to you.’ He put the money down for me to record a demo and that became my very first American debut, which is a self-titled album called Michel Camilo. He walked this tape to SONY and I got signed by Dr. George Butler. It was incredible how that thing happened. It was like a dream come true when I recorded that one."

"There is another album; it’s a big band version of my trio songs. The album - I dedicated it to my arranging and orchestration teacher, Don Sebesky. I studied with him. And also, I dedicated [it] to Count Basie, because of the tightness of his band. Therefore, this is a very tight big band album; it’s my only big band album in my entire career. It’s called One More Once, as Count Basie used to say. You know, after that I would say I’m in love with all of my albums. There are many very special ones, like Live at the Blue Note. That’s the only double album that I have and it summarizes twenty years of honing my trio sound. That’s why it is very special and it is the only live album that I have. Half of it is new material, so imagine what it is to record new material in front of an audience."

"The new album, Rhapsody in Blue, that’s my latest love. The reason is Gershwin, for me, is an incredible figure. The guy was an amazing musician, [and] first of all, an incredible pianist. He wrote very difficult music for the piano, very involved. Not only that, he was able to pull it all together. He was in love with jazz as I am, and somehow, he was able to merge his love for jazz with classical sensibilities and the Gershwin sound is universal. That is why I went to Barcelona to record it with the symphony there--to try to capture the universal Gershwin, which transcends barriers."

I mentioned to Michel that the liner notes for the new Rhapsody in Blue state that Michel played Rhapsody using Gershwin’s original markings.

Michael said, "The score that we usually learn, pianists, if we want to learn this piece, is the score that has been published, that has been published forever, which his publisher edited from the original solo piano version, because Gershwin wrote Rhapsody for solo piano. The version that I discovered, I discovered because of the curator for the Gershwin Estate, Alicia Zizzo. I met her at a Gershwin symposium to which I had been invited to perform these works with a symphony on Long Island. I found out that there was this new published solo piano version of "Rhapsody in Blue" and it was based on something that the Gershwin Estate found in a trunk that was the original, original. It had all these markings and accents that were missing in the published normal version. Also it had the word ‘swing’ and the word ‘jazzy,’ you know that was really interesting and that triggered a double interest in my deciding to record these pieces."

"I have been playing these pieces for at least 10 years all over the world with many different symphonies, but I never considered recording them until I found that I could say something new with them. I try to put another angle on it and try to bring out the swinging aspect of the music; the drive and the intensity that this music has both on the romantic side and in the drive that is built into the music."

"So based on my research on the solo piano version, which has many more interludes than the version that everybody knows, I tried to connect with the original spirit of the music. For years I had read that they call "Rhapsody in Blue" fragmented. The reason is that chunks are missing of the piano parts that link the sections between one and the other, which makes more sense, but those parts are not orchestrated. When you play with an orchestra, the orchestra is all set with the orchestration. Nevertheless, it is very enlightening to be exposed to those missing chunks of the ‘Rhapsody in Blue.’"

"Also on my solo piano album, I recorded two of Gershwin’s songs as well, ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’ and ‘Love is Here to Stay.’ So I’m a big Gershwin fan. I always have been because I love his sense of melody, you know that is where he is at, first melody than everything else. The melodic sense of Gershwin is very deep and, of course, harmonically and rhythmically it’s amazing. Then all the inspiration from the blues to the spirituals, to ragtime, to Charleston; it’s all there, it’s all present. I try to connect with that aspect of the music as much as possible. Also, people tend to forget that the original, according to the legend, Gershwin improvised his solo piano part at the premier of ‘Rhapsody in Blue.&&& I’ve read it was because he didn’t have time to write it down. He just had enough time to get it together and have it orchestrated for the premier with Paul Whiteman."

I asked Michel if he had heard of any other treasures found in the trunk containing the original of "Rhapsody." Michel said, "For years some of the Gershwin original transcriptions and piano parts were lost. I know this because of the Lebeque Sisters. The Lebeque sisters are the French duo, pianists, that are very good friends of mine. They are very important in this particular project to me because they were ones who pushed me to play Gershwin initially. After I recorded my first American Album, the Michel Camilo, I went to do a show case for SONY in Cannes, France and the two of them were there, Katia and Marielle. They saw that there was another pianist on the bill and they stayed to listen to me and we became very good friends, immediately after the concert."

"They asked me to do two-piano versions of some of my trio pieces, which I did over the years, and they took me on tour around France and eventually Mexico and the Caribbean, playing in three pianos. Their repertoire was really wide in scope, from Stravinsky to Bartok to Rachmaninoff to Gershwin to Monk to Ellington to Camilo to McLaughlin to Chick Correa. It was incredible these three-piano versions of all this music. They were the ones who started to say ‘You would play a great Gershwin, you have the right touch, you should go after it on top of that you are a jazz player, you would say something new with these pieces.’ They are the ones who pushed me."

I asked if the current tour that is scheduled to bring Michel Camilo through Europe the Caribbean and out to Japan would be stopping off in Southern California. Michel said, "There is nothing so far, but I am not losing my hope." I am not either, but I sure hope that Michael does get out here.

While I was doing some name checking and other chores, I went to Michel’s website, which is a treasure trove of great information and links. It is really worth a visit and if you are missing any of Michel’s CD’s you may be able to get them there.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Michel Camilo
  • Subtitle: Rhapsody in Blue as George Intended
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