In conversation with michel camilo

By Tomas Peña

                   Michel Camilo by Jos L. Knaepen

Pianist, composer, and three-time Grammy award winner Michel Camilo was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, in 1954. Fascinated with music since childhood, he composed his first song at the age of five and studied for thirteen years at the National Conservatory. At the age of sixteen, he became a member of the National Symphony Orchestra.

Seeking to expand his musical horizons, Camilo moved to New York in 1979, where he continued his studies at Mannes College and the Juilliard School of Music. He made his Carnegie Hall debut with his trio in 1985, and has become one of the world's most prominent pianists.

I caught up with Michel as he was preparing to do a benefit concert for the Diabetes Foundation in the Dominican Republic. What began as a timed, forty-minute interview, quickly evolved into an enjoyable and deep conversation about his life, music, and career that lasted nearly an hour.

If you have ever wondered why Michel is so successful at what he does, understand this: Michel Camilo is a man on a mission, an individual who talks the talk and walks the walk, a musician's musician and a person whose smile spreads light wherever he goes.

Hola, Michel! You are one busy guy! Our time is limited so let's cut to the chase and speak about Spirit of the Moment. The album was released in 2007 and, amazingly, is still going strong.

That's right. This has been a long tour, but the album has a quiet intensity. After I recorded Live at the Blue Note (2003) I decided to stop playing with a trio for awhile. In between Live at the Blue Note and Spirit of Moment, I recorded Solo (2005), Rhapsody in Blue (2006), and Spain Again with Tomatito (2006). The break gave me a chance to work with a new unit [a trio] and develop a sound, and it has been paying off ever since because we have been touring since the album was released. Incidentally, the album came out of a tour where we did something like 42 performances.

You practically live on the road. How do you do it?

[Laughs] Thank God I still have the energy!

I have seen the trio perform on a number of occasions. The first time was at Lincoln Center about four years ago, and more recently at the Caramoor Jazz Festival in upstate New York.

Wow! The concert at Lincoln Center was probably the first time Dafnis [Prieto] played with me!

If it was, you couldn't tell. The trio was spectacular!

Thank you, I am very proud of what's happening with this trio. I think the advantage here has been time. Drummer Dafnis Prieto has been with me for four years, and bassist Charles Flores has been with me for seven years. There is no substitute for honing your skills and polishing the sound, the nuances, and the textures. Our level of communication has reached the point where I call it a 'seventh sense.' It's amazing how we hear things the same way and compliment each other's playing. It's a dream come true.

You really enjoy performing with a trio.

Well, it's my core foundation and my center. For me the trio is like a mini-orchestra and that's how I write for it. I like to challenge my sidemen, not with just the interplay that comes from improvising, but also the orchestral part of it. For example, the charts contain big band and ensemble moments. That keeps us interested in the music.

The interplay between the three of you is incredible. You respond to one another in a nanosecond.

That's what makes it so rewarding for us and the audience. We are definitely seeing the fruits of our labor because at the end of the day we have been touring this album for two years [the tour ends in May of 2009]. During this tour we performed in every situation imaginable, from the smallest to the largest clubs in the U.S. and in Tokyo, where we played for an audience of 5000 people.

Let's talk about the title, Spirit of the Moment. I take it that it has something to do with your philosophy of constantly challenging yourself and being and creating in the moment.

Actually, it reflects what happens within the trio. That was the whole thing, to try to capture that magic, that nanosecond, like you said before. It's that indescribable magic that happens when everything falls into the right place, when we hear things the same way and compliment each other perfectly and the energy is just right. As I mentioned previously, there is a quiet intensity to the album, and that's what I call 'the spirit of the moment.'

I understand that you composed the material in a relatively short period of time.

I wanted the process to be organic; I wanted it to be part of itself. That's why I challenged myself to write the material in eight days, or one tune per day. My inspiration was the trio, what we have done in the past, what I knew they could do for me and how we interact with one another. In fact, when we went to the studio we asked Telarc [Records] to record us direct to the master. That way everything is organically focused to the concept of the album.

In other words, it's like listening to a live recording.

It's about the immediacy and the moment that can never be repeated, which is very difficult to capture because it is so elusive [laughs].

That's the essence of jazz—improvising in the moment.

That's what makes us look forward to each concert, and that's why we are able to play the same material over and over and it still sounds fresh.

The more you play the material the 'fresher' it sounds.

That's what I mean! It's the ultimate trust between the leader and the sidemen and it's a three-way conversation. That's why you see so many smiles and winks on stage. We know each other so well that I don't even know how we do it. Recently, we were playing at the Regatta Bar jazz club in Boston and we did something that we didn't even talk about. We heard it the same way and nobody fought it, and when nobody fights the musical discourse it's a great flow.

It's like creating a great work of art then stepping back and marveling at it.

You discover new shades, new colors and nuances. Sometimes a song that has been bright becomes obscure. All of that has a lot of value for us because it keeps us on our toes creatively. And the fact that we encounter so many difference types of audiences all over the world and each one reacts differently. For some, a jazz performance is like a classical concert and they don't applaud until the end.

Where was that?

In Japan they respect us so much that they want to hear every detail, but it's kind of weird because we are used to interacting with the audience. Unless you are very seasoned you could easily get spooked! [Laughs] But thank God that doesn't generally happen.

Let's talk about your fascination with the number '3.'

You know about that, huh?

As part of my research I listened to an interview you did on National Public Radio with Maria Hinojosa, where you spoke about your fascination with the number three. Afterwards I visited a numerology site and came up with some interesting information.

Oh, really?

Among other things, the number 3 represents the triad: the father, the son and the Holy Ghost; the sun, the moon, and the stars; and spirit, soul and body. I understand that the album is divided into three sections that correspond to the number 3.

The number 3 is in all of my recordings, you just have to find it. The most obvious reference is the album, Triangulo (Triangle). I have been reading esoteric books since I was fifteen, and I learned that the number 3 spells out our nature. I am a Catholic, so you know there is the Holy Trinity—the father, the son, and the Holy Ghost, all of that. That's why there are no coincidences and the album is divided into three parts: body, mind, and soul. The first four songs are original tunes, and the middle section is 3 + 1 (three standards and one original tune) and the last section is 1+3 (one standard and three original tunes).

Got it …

If you listen carefully to the tune 'Giant Steps,' you will see that the arrangement is based on the number 3. Also, there are three syllables in the words, Gi-ant-Steps. It's all there! And the treatment of 'Nardis' is based on the number 3 because it's a bulería.

A Spanish rhythm based on a three count.


Let's go to the first part: Body.

It's more intense and more robust. All of the tunes in the first part are originals because I wanted it to give the album my personal touch and show what I am about, not just as a player but as a composer.

The first part contains four original tunes: 'Just Now,' 'My Secret Place,' 'A Place in Time,' and 'Repercussions.'

There are three ballads on the album as well: 'My Secret Place,' 'A Place in Time' and 'Liquid Crystal,' though 'Liquid Crystal' is a little more esoteric because it has a groove under it. Also, all the titles have three words. For me the album is like a book that is divided into three big chapters with four parts that tell a story. It's no coincidence that the album starts in C-major and it ends in C-minor. The album was constructed organically.

Part 2 contains tunes by your idols.

Its people that I grew up listening to, that I admired as players, composers, and creators. It's my take on their music.

That's Miles, Coltrane, Bill Evans, and Wayne Shorter. It doesn't get any better than that!

[Laughs] It's about what they gave me as a jazz musician—my formation, how they helped me to get to where I am today harmonically-speaking, melodically-speaking. How they took chances with their careers, how they were able to shift and keep on going. All of that influences me. Not just the music, but the how they were able to stay current through every period of their lives.

Of the four, Miles and Coltrane were criticized the most for keeping up with the times.

That's what I am talking about. They were attacked but that's part of being a jazz musician. When there is no risk involved it gets very boring. It's the most important thing in jazz. I teach master classes all over the world, and I tell my students that we all change from day to day. You just have to notice the changes and allow your music to change with you. The more we travel and encounter new places and new cultures, more ideas come to you. You have to be open to change, if you don't change you are in a comfortable place, but that place can be the ultimate killer for your creative juices. That's why you see me doing so many different projects and 'jumping fences' [laughs].

Let's talk about Part 3: Soul.

The third part goes to a different place, especially the last take on 'Solar.' It's like a buildup to an abstract place, and yet there is a lot of power. You know, I have a friend who directs films, and he always says that a good movie dies in the last third and that the plot has to thicken in order to surprise the audience. That's what I try to do, surprise the listener and take it to a place where you never think we would go. Towards the end of 'Solar,' I just say [to the trio], 'let's listen to each other and create a chart.' I didn't want to play the melody, so I just hint at it.

The first time I heard you do that was with Tito Puente's 'Oye Como Va,' I didn't 'get it' until I played it a few times, after which I had a 'Eureka' moment.

We do it with 'Giant Steps,' too.

At breakneck speed …

That's true. The challenge there was to do a very short rendition. At our live concerts we do a standard [long] version of 'Giant Steps.' The idea was to do the tune in two minutes and get in and get out. We have played these tunes so much that now we are able to create with total freedom, in other words, not reading a part, or even putting a chart in front of anybody, just hearing each other. That's why it's called 'Explorations.'

'Solar' just happens to be one of my favorite tunes of all time.

We did three takes, and it was really difficult to pick the one we wanted to use. All of them were interesting. At one point I was considering including all of the different versions, but that would have ruined the architecture of the album. In the end, we went with the first take because it was the 'freshest.' I usually go with the first take. In this case, it's closer to the concept of the album.

Given the fact that you travel so much, how do you manage to keep your energy levels up and remain passionate about the music?

                   Michel Camilo by Jos L. Knaepen

Yeah, it's difficult, but you have to apply discipline. You may want to hang out but you might not be able to do it because you have a concert the next day. You can't do that to your audience. You can't get there wasted; you have to be in shape for it, so that means going to bed after a concert, eating well and listening to music. If you see Charles and Dafnis they are always hooked up to their MP3 players.

What kind of music do you listen to on your down time?

I listen to both jazz and classical music, but [Charles and Dafnis] are really intense, they listen to everything in jazz and are constantly hooked up, and always commenting on things. That's why they are such great musicians.

When I interviewed Dafnis he was really into Indian Music.

I think he puts more of those rhythms into practice with his own band. With my band he and Charles listen to a lot of straight-ahead jazz and Latin jazz, but they are always analyzing. That's what gets the creative juices flowing. And I also try to surprise the hell out of them. When I go to sound checks, I use different scales and chords in the same material that we have been playing. It's always great because it keeps them wondering about what I am going to do next.

Tell me what Charles and Dafnis bring to the table, individually and collectively.

Charles is very committed to his music. He is always practicing and listening to new music. He's also someone who is really instrumental to me in my new version of the trio. His first recording with me was Live at the Blue Note, and you could tell early-on that he was committed to me and my music. It was a real challenge for him, too, because he came to the trio after [bassist] Anthony Jackson, who is one of the geniuses. But I wanted to change the sound of the trio and go with an acoustic bass. Charles is an electric bass player, but I told him that in my trio he was going to play the acoustic bass and asked him if he could handle it, because there is a lot of intensity. His answer was, 'I will work for it,' and he did. He developed an incredible touch and an incredible sound and he has great pitch. This is the first time where I have used the arco bass [the bow], and the audience loves it. It expands the possibilities of a jazz trio. And at the same time he is very open-minded. The fact that we share Caribbean roots is something that we don't even talk about, but we draw on that, as well.

I have been a supporter of Dafnis from the beginning of his career. In fact, I wrote the liner notes for his first recording. I could see that he was a hungry musician—that he was very committed and a force to be reckoned with in the jazz world—and he has never disappointed me. On the contrary, he always surprises me and he keeps on growing and we are growing together. I call it a journey of self-discovery.

Music also teaches you a lot about yourself.

Some of the best concerts are precisely when we are very tired.

Is that because your defenses are down?

Exactly, there is nothing blocking the flow of ideas. I guess you could call it a second wind.

No doubt you are ready for a good nap after expending so much energy.

A nap and food, lots and lots of food! Dafnis is always hungry.

You would never know it to look at him!

The whole thing is how support each other. When one of us is down, the others give him moral support. You know, being on the road is hard, but all of those feelings and nuances go into the music. After all, the music is charged with all of our inner feelings and life experiences.

So what's next?

Well, we have a very interesting concert that we are going to do at Carnegie Hall on November 13th. It's going to be a real challenge for me because I have to play a double concert.

How so?

It's called 'Caribe: Solo/Trio.' The first half is solo piano and the second half is the trio, but I never leave the stage, so it's like a marathon. It's a tribute to George Wein, a close and personal friend. The common denominator is people who knew George Wein. George was the person who gave me my first big opportunity. Early in my career he heard me perform at the Blue Note and he asked me if I had ever recorded in the U.S. I told him that I had recorded two albums for a Japanese label and he said, 'Next week you are in the studio.' He paid for the recording session, took the tape to Sony Records and said 'You should try this guy out.' The rest is history.

I didn't know that. I remember seeing you perform as a sideman with Paquito D' Rivera when you first came to New York. I also remember you sitting in for pianist Jorge Dalto when he became ill.

Wow! I recorded two albums with Paquito, Why Not and Explosion.

Watching musicians like you and Dafnis grow has been a great ride for me. Someone really needs to document this stuff.

People don't realize that we are living in a golden era of jazz. Musicians of my generation are touring and playing constantly. The last time we played in Tokyo it was for a crowd of 5000 people, and that's not the only concert where we get audiences like that. We did a concert in Germany last year and it was filmed for German television. Things like that are happening … at some point somebody has to do research and document the era.

From your lips to God's ears! What is the most remote location you have ever played in?

A place called Tromso, in the Arctic Circle. It was dark the whole time we were there.

Where do you go from here?

I am doing a benefit concert in the Dominican Republic for the Diabetes Foundation, then we go to the Caribbean and return to New York. From there, it's on to Denmark and Spain. It's a lot of fun to do, it's very intense. I am very happy with the trio and I love them both, we are great friends and we have a ball. When we are not playing we miss each other.

The love, respect, and communication really comes across on stage, and the music is superb.

The music is sincere, honest, fun, and spiritual. It's not just a business. And somehow we still manage to surprise each other!

It's been great speaking with you, Michel. Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to speak with

Thank you, Tomas.


March 05, 2009 · 3 comments

  • 1 Jared Pauley // Mar 05, 2009 at 05:51 PM
    Awesome interview. Wonderful insight from one of the true masters of piano.
  • 2 JT // Mar 11, 2009 at 10:54 PM
    A true master. A really humble individual.
  • 3 Flavio Rogerio // May 20, 2009 at 12:23 PM
    Michel Camilo...sinplismente maravilhoso!!!vendo ele tocar...ou vc para e desiste ou te da mais vantade ainda de seguir enfrente!no meu caso quero ir longe!!!!!!abraço.