Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Camilo, Michel

Michel Camilo combines his mastery of the jazz piano tradition, including stride and the blues, with equally deep understanding of mambo, rumba, salsa, and flamenco. A dynamic performer with exceptional technique, Camilo uses both hands equally to create a rich blend of sounds.

Michel Camilo was born on April 4th, 1954 in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Born into a musical family, Camilo received an accordion as a Christmas gift when he was 4 and a half years old. The accordion, however, did not contain his musical imagination for long, and he became entranced by the sounds of his grandparent’s piano. At the age of nine, the young Camilo began to study piano at the National Conservatory in the Dominican Republic and a year later, his parents bought him his first piano.

By the time he was a teen, Camilo was completely immersed in the study of classical composers such as Chopin and Rachmaninoff, but his ears were also open to the African-inspired musics of the Dominican Republic as well as jazz.

In parallel to his classical training, he also developed his own percussive keyboard technique which was more suited to the rhythmic challenges of Latin music. This ability to draw on multiple techniques several techniques at once has given him a deep bag of tricks. “I have two piano techniques and I just try to use the best of each one, whatever makes it easier to play what I am hearing and feeling at the moment with the least amount of energy spent.”

Camilo also employed different techniques to learn music from studying classical piano technique books to learning jazz solos. “Another thing I did was to transcribe solos by John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, etc. and play them with both hands. Since I tried to use solos by horn players, this would force my fingers to move in a different way.”

Once he completed his studies at the National Conservatory, Camilo moved to the United States to study music at the Juilliard School in New York. He studied with Jacob Lateiner until 1983 when he was recommended to play an engagement with percussionist Tito Puente at the Montreal Jazz Festival. Sitting in the audience was Cuban-born reedman Paquito D’Rivera, who was impressed by the young pianist's ability and offered him a spot in his band.

At the same time, he joined a fusion group, French Toast, with drummer Dave Weckl and bassist Anthony Jackson. The group performed at Carnegie Hall in 1985. We had a "special chemistry" together," Camilo has said. "I think what helped us even more was that we played every Monday evening at an uptown Manhattan club called Mikell's and this gave us an opportunity to develop a musical language together.”

One evening at 7th Avenue South, a club owned by Randy and Michael Brecker, Camilo was approached by Janis Segal, the lead singer for the vocal group Manhattan Transfer. She liked the song he had written, “Why Not,” and she wondered if it had lyrics. It didn't, so Camilo had some written, and it won a Grammy Award when it was recorded by Manhattan Transfer in 1983.

In 1988, Camilo released his self-titled debut album, which established his reputation in both straight-ahead and Latin He followed this with On Fire in 1989 and On the Other Hand in 1990. In 1991, he wrote the score for a Spanish film, Amo Tu Cama Rica. In 1993, he reunited with Anthony Jackson and Dave Weckl for the album Rendezvous.

In 1999, Camilo recorded Spain,an album with Spanish flamenco guitarist Tomatito. The title track displayed the duo’s successful reinterpretation of the flamenco genre, and Camilo's backgrounds behind Tomatito's sparse but rapid lines are subtle, but sometimes overshadow the guitarist's delicate work.

Camilo made a memorable appearance in Fernando Trueba’s 2000 documentary on Latin jazz, Calle 54, in which the Spanish filmmaker gathered a who's who of Latin jazz artists at Sony’s studio on 54th street in Manhattan.

In 2002, Camilo released Piano Concerto, Suite and Caribe, a multi-movement work he composed featuring members of the BBC orchestra. The album received mixed reviews, but it captures Camilo’s ability to meld the blues, tango and classical influences in an orchestral setting. In 2006, Camilo reunited with Tomatito for Spain Again, which once again highlights the wonderful interaction between these two performers.

In 2007, Camilo released a trio album,Spirit of the Moment. Here his playing is more gentle and light than in the past. “Just Now” is a playful, bluesy exploration of sharp 9 chords. On Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti,” Camilo plays accessible yet thought-provoking lines which fall somwhere between Bill Evans and Herbie Hancock in his use of left hand rootless harmonies and subdued right hand, melodic explorations.

Camilo has been honored by the government of the Dominican Republic as a Knight of the Heraldic Order of Christopher Columbus, and holds a number of honorary degrees.

Select Discography

1989 - On Fire

1990 - On The Other Hand

1991 - Amo Tu Cama Rica (Soundtrack)

1993 - Rendezvous

1994 - One More Once

1996 - Two Much (Soundtrack)

1997 - Hands of Rhythm (w/ Giovanni Hidalgo)

1997 - Thru My Eyes

2000 - Spain

2001 - Calle 54 (Soundtrack)

2002 - Piano Concerto, Suite & Caribe

2002 - Triangulo

2003 - Live at the Blue Note

2005 - Solo

2006 - Rhapsody In Blue

2006 - Spain Again

2007 - Spirit of the Moment

Contributor: Jared Pauley