Michel is a kind man, an educated and intelligent man--a man with an eagerness to share his passion through music to audiences throughout the world. When you hear him play, whether solo, with a trio or symphony orchestra, you immediately recognize the enormity of his talent. It’s no wonder he has been recognized with a GRAMMY Nomination for Triangulo-"Best Jazz Instrumental Album," a GRAMMY Award for his two CD set, Live at the Blue Note-"Best Latin Jazz Album," a Latin GRAMMY Award for Rhapsody in Blue-"Best Classical Album," and another Latin GRAMMY for Spain with Flamenco guitarist Tomatito, plus an EMMY Award for The Goodwill Games Theme. He has released 20 albums since 1997. Then, you go to his website and take a look at his tour schedule, and you begin to grasp the extent of Michel’s work beyond the studio.
Since joining Telarc in 2001, each of Michel’s albums displays an extraordinary evolution and vision. Accordingly, Michel’s vision was to rest from his previous trio setting, a 20-year journey, while pursuing other musical adventures. Now, fresh and invigorated, he triumphantly returns with bassist Charles Flores and drummer Dafnis Prieto with the Telarc April 24, 2007 trio release, Spirit of the Moment.
Spirit of the Moment is an exciting array of Michel’s original compositions and transformations of jazz classics, with a blend of exciting rhythmic elements and complex harmonies. The trio is more than tight, with Flores and Prieto so simpatico with Camilo, each track eagerly pours from your speakers into your every pore. Each blending is uplifting, with Flores and Prieto adding new sounds and emphasis to compliment Camilo’s vision.
Camilo’s exploration with the classic "Nefertiti," Nardis," "Giant Steps" and "Solar" are ingenious, but second-to-none selections on Spirit of the Moment are Camilo’s originals, which by the way, he wrote immediately after the trio’s 2006, inspiring 42-club tour, honing the trio’s simpatico even further.
Michel has much to say about his trio and new CD. It’s always an exciting journey speaking with him as he shares his zest for life and music.
JazzReview: Hello Michel. It is so great to speak with you again. Are you relaxing today?
Michel Camilo: Yes, we are relaxing from our tour.
JazzReview: With your new trio, correct?
Michel Camilo: Well, yes, one week with the trio at the Bern Jazz Festival in Switzerland, and one week in Madrid and Seville with the Madrid Symphony Orchestra. Then, I went on to Germany where I played a solo piano concert, as well.
JazzReview: That sounds wonderful. I just love your new CD. Congratulations on another outstanding album.
Michel Camilo: Thanks so much. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’m ecstatic [chuckles]. It was a very special one.
JazzReview: I’ve simply had to play it again and again, and this morning before our interview. It took me awhile to get the Goosebumps to go down on my arms.
Michel Camilo: Wow, that’s great! That’s what it is all about. If it touches you, then I am a happy person.
JazzReview: Believe me, there are many others who feel the same way about your music. First of all, Michel, how does it feel to be considered one of the musical geniuses of our time?
Michel Camilo: [Laughs really hard] Well, I don’t know if I would call it like that, but for me, I’m glad to be alive in this moment in time, and to share my music with everyone around the world.
JazzReview: Let’s talk about your new CD, Spirit of the Moment.
Michel Camilo: I just felt like I needed to make this album, organically, from my deepest innermost. I felt like it was the right time to go back to the trio. As intense as Live at the Blue Note [double live CD], which was, as you know, a Grammy winner in 2003, I felt like I needed to let the fans enjoy that project for a while. That gave me the advantage of exploring other universes, like my solo project entitled Solo.
JazzReview: And your symphony work, as well.
Michel Camilo: Yes, my symphony work of Gershwin, and also my collaboration with the flamenco guitar player, Tomatito, which was called Spain Again.
JazzReview: That was a follow up to your Grammy winning Spain on Verve back in 2000, correct?
Michel Camilo: Yes, this was our second project together. And you know, that way I could clean the slate and have a totally refreshed mind when I came back to the trio. In the meantime, we [the trio] did a lot of touring, and that was an important thing.
JazzReview: Of course, it’s important for your fans to have the opportunity to see your trio live. You know, Michel, I have played Spirit of the Moment several times. The more I listened to it, I began to grasp the depth of what your trio is doing.
Michel Camilo: There you go! [laughs] I’m glad you tuned into that because that’s what it’s all about.
JazzReview: What was your thinking in the development of Spirit of the Moment? I mean, you did this miracle marathon and wrote eight original songs in eight days. That’s simply beyond my comprehension. How did you do that, chain yourself to the piano? [laughs]
Michel Camilo: [laughs] Yeah, even Sandra [Michel’s wife] was in shock. You know, I said, "I gotta do one" and bam, here it is! You’d be surprised when you put your soul and mind into something, what happens. Like I say, I just let it flow. Basically, it all came from my tour with my trio, a very intense tour. It was a two-month tour with 42 performances ninety percent of them in jazz clubs around the world.
JazzReview: Yeah, small, intimate settings that I love. It’s the best way to see jazz.
Michel Camilo: Yeah, and there is something that happens to you when you do so many performances like that. That was last spring. I took them [the trio] to Milan, to Tokyo, Osaka, New York, and a couple of big hall concerts in Switzerland. That really triggered the whole inspiration for this project. After that tour, I was completely inspired, knew I had it, and the trio was ready to record.
That is really what I kept inside me and when I sat down to write the material, it came out naturally without forcing anything-just letting it flow.
JazzReview: Your trio is just "it!" It is so together, so perfected.
Michel Camilo: I’m so glad.
JazzReview: No, really Michel, the way the three of you play off one another, it’s absolutely a-m-a-z-i-n-g!
Michel Camilo: That’s what we’re trying to capture. That’s why I called it the Spirit of the Moment.
JazzReview: And Dafnis oh, his percussion! And Charles with his bass Wow, not just your ordinary trio!
Michel Camilo: They tuned in to my vision and I told them, "Trust me and we’ll go for this." They were into it, completely into it, and were eager to do this project. I’m sure you can tell.
JazzReview: The enthusiasm is certainly apparent and the interplay is so exciting.
Michel Camilo: One hopes that it will always be as easy. And when I told Friedrich [Robert Friedrich], he’s the one who has produced all my Telarc albums; he also became enthused with my idea and the immediacy of this particular album.
JazzReview: Certainly the timing was right with you feeling so inspired.
Michel Camilo: Like I said, the yearning that I had for the project, I couldn’t wait to get into the studio. I couldn’t wait to present the new material to Charles and Dafnis.
JazzReview: And then you went and recorded a week later? Man!
Michel Camilo: Right! It captures the whole spirit of the album. I thought if I gave it to them and they had enough time the album might sound old. [laughs]
JazzReview: So you kept it fresh. I understand that even when you did do several takes of the individual songs, you went back and always chose the first take. Now that’s tight!
Michel Camilo: That’s it! Even with Robert [Friedrich], he was in the same boat as us. He said, "Why don’t we record directly to the master?" That way, whatever we do, it’s mixed on the fly. As we recorded it, it was being set to stone.
JazzReview: In the moment!
Michel Camilo: Straight from the heart and soul! There is something to be said about that. Psychologically, it triggers us to go the extra mile and really make all those different grooves, intimacy and explosive moments. It’s all there. There are some fireworks in there. [laughs] All that interplay you hear is based on that mindset.
JazzReview: Before we get into some of the individual tracks, let’s talk a little bit about Charles and Dafnis. Charles has been with you for a while if I’m not mistaken, but Dafnis
Michel Camilo: Yes, Charles has been with me for 6 years. Dafnis has been playing with me for about 3 years on tours and festivals, all types of situations. It is actually an advantage to have the luxury of bringing him into the trio, and recording him. You know three years of molding him into the trio and polishing everything we needed to work on without any stress.
JazzReview: And you know what? I am amazed at how Dafnis brings something so exciting to the mix.
Michel Camilo: Which was what I was hoping for. As a leader, that’s what you always hope for, that your sidemen collaborate your vision, go into the material and give you the very best. That’s what I think Charles and Dafnis are giving me on this project.
Charles has been featured with me on Live at the Blue Note, and oh boy, the last six years he has been
JazzReview: Full circle, right? I read that he raised his bridge on his base.
Michel Camilo: As well. You can get a bounce, a more swinging quality from the base. He now has command of his chair. He’s incredible, not only swinging, but also more lyrically I feel-and using his bowing, which is also incredible.
JazzReview: Oh my gosh, he did some great bowing on "My Secret Place."
Michel Camilo: Yes, and he does some solo bowing on "Nardis," almost flamenco. I never knew he was such a great bowing player. It came so casually on one of the tours. When he brought the bow out, I said, "Oh my God!" [laughing]
JazzReview: [laughing] Like what is that?
Michel Camilo: [still laughing] I’ll have to use that on one of my next albums [he thought].
JazzReview: Like I said, I really enjoyed Charles’ bowing on " My Secret Place." It made your composition so haunting and lyrical.
Michel Camilo: It draws you in, right?
JazzReview: Now I’m getting Goosebumps again just remembering it.
Michel Camilo: Dafnis tuned in perfectly with the two of us. We even talked about details like the cymbals, how many cymbals, the type of harmonics I wanted to hear on the drums, and the tuning of the drums. Everything was so detailed. I don’t know if you realize it, but he uses different brushes and different sticks. He’s really wonderful.
Take something as refined as "Liquid Crystal," where the groove is played with plastics. He got an incredible sound.
JazzReview: This is something most people do not realize when they listen to the CD since they are not musicians. They just know it sounds terrific.
Michel Camilo: I’ve always been into nuances and textures, as you know. Having two musicians who vibrate on the same frequency is a dream come true, for sure.
JazzReview: You also let them showcase their talent with their solos.
Michel Camilo: It was important. You know what the architecture is on the CD. It is divided into three parts. Each part has four pieces each. The first four are my originals and the second part includes three standards, "Nardis," "Nefertiti" and "Giant Steps." Then Act 3 is a little more adventurous harmonically. As the album finishes, it becomes a little more abstract. It’s sort of like a futurist vision. Basically, if I had to say something, it would be at the end of the explorations with the Miles Davis song [Solar], it’s a way of saying, "To Be Continued, dot, dot, dot!"
JazzReview: And we look forward to that. So you conceptualize the concept of a 3-part book with twelve chapters, segueing from one adventure to another?
Michel Camilo: Exactly. It is important to me to never lose track of the big picture. The album, like you say, is an open book that tells a story. Everything should flow naturally into the next. At the same time, each song has its own moment, its own personality, its own groove and its own key. To keep the listener’s interests and to grab their attention, it’s a challenge. I take that very seriously so I do a map of the whole project. You have an inside architecture so that everything has a meaning.
JazzReview: And what was your thinking when you included some of the great classics like "Nardis" on your new trio CD?
Michel Camilo: First of all, they were songs I always wanted to play. Secondly, they are songs of my idols that I admire very much. I tried to internalize these standards and then when they came out, they came out as a very personal statement.
JazzReview: And you put the spin on "Nefertiti" with Afro-Cuban rhythms and "Giant Steps" had a lot of changing rhythms.
Michel Camilo: And as you notice, the rhythm underpinning of "Giant Steps" at the beginning and at the end is based on the word, "giant steps." Also, somewhere in the whole architecture of the album there is kind of, like the number "3" lingering there all over the place-it’s a trio album; there are three parts, 12 chapters with a multiple of three. There is even a song called "Trilogy" in the middle of it. And if you notice, "My Secret Place" is three words.
JazzReview: And what is your secret place?
Michel Camilo: Oh, it’s my deep love for jazz. The more you look at it, the more you discover it, the happier I am. That’s the key to the whole album.
JazzReview: You make it very difficult for me to choose just one or two favorites on this album, Michel. I loved "Hurry Up and Wait." When it jumped from 7/4 to 5/2, I got up from my seat and danced. I also liked "Repercussions." Like you said, there are transitions from one to the other that make you feel different things.
Michel Camilo: There are three modified blues on this album, as well. The opening cut "Just Now" is a modified blues where each color is different from the next. In a way, it is two different kinds of blues because there are different bar counts. The percussion is a minor blues. "Hurry Up and Wait" is another one of the three modified blues in the project.
JazzReview: "A Place in Time" is a nice transition in the line up. It gives the listener a little breathing room just before the final three tracks.
Michel Camilo: That’s really important. That particular song is a great moment of solitude on the CD. Actually, it was the first track that we recorded.
JazzReview: There is talent to putting a play list together so that there is an ebb and flow of the selections.
Michel Camilo: It’s not so easy, right? What we were hoping for is that the listener will take the whole journey with us. We don’t want them to be with us for just half the album then tune off. We want them to be with us until the end.
JazzReview: Exactly, like "What’s he going to come up with on the next song?"
There you go. That’s the idea. For example, the treatment of "Nardis," remember I recorded these in between my tours with Tomotito last year so I was playing with this incredible flamenco, gypsy guitar player and the flamenco was me! So at that point, I figured "Wow, that’s it, the treatment for "Nardis!’" That’s why we changed it around completely.
JazzReview: It’s great how you took a standard like "Nardis" and breathed new life into it with a flamenco flavor.
Michel Camilo: That’s why they are standards. They lend themselves to all these different treatments. The same with "Giant Steps" and a master class article I was asked to write for Down Beat magazine, last year. I chose to write about "Giant Steps" and my love for "Giant Steps," and how I learned so much from that particular song-to keep it flowing and my approach to it. I didn’t even include a musical sample in my article. So I thought, "Why not include a musical sample on my album and show what I mean" how my vision of the piece evolves and how to reconstruct it at the same time.
I’ve always been a big fan of Coltrane. I have all his albums. I got a kick out of doing "Giant Steps" in less than two minutes [on Spirit of the Moment]. That was on purpose. Less is more. That’s all we needed to play. The rest we’ll play live.
JazzReview: As I said before, most listeners who are not musicians just know they like the treatment of "Giant Steps," but for a musician or pianist, it must be really something for them to listen and understand the technical structure of what you’ve done to it.
Michel Camilo: That’s what I love about jazz. As long as you keep an open mind, the music just keeps on expanding. If you let it, the music will develop you into a better player every time you perform. That’s the challenge, that’s the quest for a jazz musician.
By the end, by the twelfth track, I just told the guys, "Let’s not play Solar, let’s just explore it." In other words, we never really play the melody. We just completely took it apart, reconstructed it and let ourselves explore each one of the harmonic cells of the piece and what a better tribute to Miles than that, because Miles always kept an open mind.
JazzReview: Absolutely. Miles never stood still. He was a jazz conceptualist and never stopped creating and expanding. That was his genius.
Michel Camilo: I feel the same and that’s our approach to the song. We don’t stand still on just one mood or one groove. If you notice, there are at least 4 moods that we explored or three and a half [laughs].
JazzReview: Each of you is from three different regions inspired and influenced by your own country’s rhythms. You have a sort of cultural gumbo going on and once stirred up, the sound is delicious.
Michel Camilo: Well, take the title cut [3rd track] for example. The inspiration, of course, is Latin and Caribbean rhythms, but at the same time, we wanted to do a contemporary vision with them. We took it to a new level. The original line between piano and bass in triple octaves, I’m playing two octaves and he’s playing the lower octave, could be a bebop line, but at the same time, it’s Caribbean.
JazzReview: I’m curious, Michel. When you sit down to compose all these wonderful songs, what’s your process and how do you put titles to them?
Michel Camilo: It’s all about my life experiences and emotions--sometimes places and persons that I’ve met that trigger some type of emotional reaction. Sometimes even yearning for family members who have passed. In this particular project, I came up with the titles before I came up with the music, believe it or not.
JazzReview: I can’t believe that!
Michel Camilo: Yes, and the titles make it much easier because they trigger the mood and feeling I want to convey in each individual piece.
JazzReview: That just blows my mind.
Michel Camilo: It connects with my most inner place and just brings it out. It’s like something is already written, and all I have to do is tune in and put in on paper. It [the title] creates a certain vibe.
The trickiest part is not to have any doubts, and not being too critical initially. Just get the thoughts down. Sometimes it will be just a little bass line or little groove. Just get it down. Then, your compositional skills can come into play You arrange it, look at it from different angles, polish it even more--then let it sit for a day or two and go back to it. You add something here--take away something there. But like I said, when the initial thought and initial sound comes into your heart, that’s what you have to capture. Just follow your heart.
JazzReview: I think that makes all the difference in the world in the end result. It’s like the difference between a vocalist just singing flat words rather than singing the words from their heart. Your music reflects that emotional quality.
Michel Camilo: Well, that’s an important thing. If we can’t connect with our emotions, then what are we doing playing music? For me, music is the universal language of the soul. We connect with our audiences through our emotions.
JazzReview: No other art form has the power to move people so intensely-not movies, not poetry or any written word.
Michel Camilo: Music has the power to make the listener think about loved ones, the good times and sad times. It can raise their pulse or it can make them smile. It’s all there. Music has that power.
The more I travel and the more I play in so many different countries, I connect with that feeling. Sometimes I see my audience crying when I play a beautiful melody. In a way, musicians are like magicians. It’s all so magic when it happens on stage.
JazzReview: That must make you feel so wonderful when you actually see your audiences react like that.
Michel Camilo: I feel ever blessed. The good part is, I’m enjoying every moment of it.
JazzReview: I think you must have the stamina of Superman. You travel and perform so much. Then I think about the times you perform a classical symphony. That must take a lot of physical endurance. How do you do it?
Michel Camilo: Yes, it does take a lot of stamina. I am lucky to have Sandra with me and to be my manager for so many years. She makes sure I eat well and that I rest. It’s all part of it.
JazzReview: Your wife, Sandra, is not only your marriage partner; she is your career partner. It must really be wonderful to have a wife that .
Michel Camilo: is the best!
JazzReview: Aah, that is so sweet.
Michel Camilo: She shares my dream and my vision, and we are committed to it-from over 20-years ago when we first started and set our common goals.
JazzReview: Where did you meet Sandra?
Michel Camilo: I met her in college down in the Dominican Republic. She was studying to be a child psychologist, which comes in handy for me sometimes. [laughs] You know, I’m a musician [laughs]. That’s an important thing for a musician, to keep your inner child alive.
JazzReview: Well, let’s face it, how many people can actually say of their life that they did what they loved? Most people don’t. They have a dream, but end up doing something entirely different, usually just to make money. Now how blessed are you?
Michel Camilo: Very much so. That’s the message I give my students when I give master classes around the world, nowadays. They don’t realize while they are studying how brilliant they are.
JazzReview: Did you ever imagine in your wildest dreams that your career would evolve to such a degree?
Michel Camilo: No, I never knew it would go so far. Basically, I am a very religious person and I thank God everyday for it. Every time I have a chance to go on a stage-be it large, be it small, anytime, anywhere, it doesn’t matter--it’s a blessing
JazzReview: and it’s a gift you were given from an early age.
Michel Camilo: Yes. I feel I have a duty to develop it as much as I can, as a composer, as a pianist, as a creative person. That gift is a duty to bring it out and share it with everyone.
Sandra feels the same way as I do, and she works so hard. She works even harder than I do because she has to deal with the business side of my career, which is not easy sometimes.
When a concert goes well and we feel the audience it’s great to have your partner with you.
JazzReview: It’s her victory, as well.
Michel Camilo: Yes. She’s worked for it and she encourages me everyday.
JazzReview: You are one lucky man, Michel.
Michel Camilo: I feel very lucky [we both begin laughing]
JazzReview: Do the two of you have time to take vacations and relax?
Michel Camilo: We do, but we haven’t in the last three or four years. As a matter of fact, we were planning a vacation, right now. We are beach people so we enjoy going somewhere where there is a beach.
JazzReview: So what are you doing living in New York? [laughs]
Michel Camilo: [laughs] I’m here because of the jazz. There’s an energy here that keeps you competitive. But definitely, we are going to take vacation next month and lie on a beach somewhere-feel the breeze, feel the water-because we are island people. We need that. It’s important because you need to unplug sometimes. It keeps you fresh.
JazzReview: Anything in the works right now besides planning your vacation?
Michel Camilo: Last week when I played in Madrid and Seville with the Madrid Symphony Orchestra, Jesus Lopez Cobos, one of the big conductors worldwide, called me. He conducted the Rhapsody in Blue with me in Spain, and also conducted my piano concerto. It was such a thrill. It is really wonderful to be able to come in and out of different musical worlds like that. Right now my next challenge is I have been commissioned to write my second piano concerto.
JazzReview: That’s thrilling. Have you began putting anything to paper yet?
Michel Camilo: Let’s just say it has started inside me. I’m already hearing ideas. It’s there; it just has to come out. It will premiere 2008, or the beginning of 2009.
JazzReview: This is exciting news.
Thinking about the body of work you have done, is there anything that you are most particularly proud of?
Michel Camilo: That’s a hard one. To tell you the truth, I’m really proud of the one I just put out, Spirit of the Moment. That’s the way I feel in this moment in time. It just captures all my feelings and the things I’ve wanted to play for a long time. I feel very, very proud of this one. I’m just like you; I don’t get tired of listening to it. I love it. I only hope that I would always feel this way, and feel the harmony of what just happened. That is a picture of your self. It’s like looking at myself in the mirror.
JazzReview: As you said about "Solar" dot-dot-dot, to be continued.
Michel Camilo: Always always looking forward. I can’t wait for the next one. It’s wonderful to see that it all came out. It’s all there.
JazzReview: Will you be playing at the Blue Note soon?
Michel Camilo: I’ve had a tradition for the past seven years or so...that I go to the Blue Note and play one full week, just once a year. All the fans know it now and they fly in from all over the world. It’s really great. Now that they are hip to it, they know if they miss it, they will have to wait another year to see me play there. [laughs]
I asked Telarc to release my new CD in conjunction with my week at the Blue Note. They released it on April 24th so that gives everyone enough time to catch on, "Hey, there’s a new album. Let’s go see it." I will celebrate the new repertoire [at the Blue Note] beginning Tuesday, May 8 through the 13th.
The Blue Note has kind of been my home base in New York for the past ten years. The climax of that, of course, was the Live at the Blue Note album. Now, it’s nice to go back to the Blue Note with the trio. It’s the official world release. It’s going to be exciting.
JazzReview: The heart is happiest when it beats for others. Michel Camilo spreads his happiness through his inspired music and a never-ending joy that draws listeners to share in the Spirit of the Moment.