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Twenty-five albums into a prolific and varied career, Michel Camilo has lots to talk about / JazzTimes

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You don't get an answer when you ask Michel Camilo a question, you get a story-like the one about how he gravitated toward the piano as a child growing up in the Dominican Republic. "When I turned almost five, that Christmas my mother and father gave me a very tiny accordion," says the now 65-year-old pianist, bandleader, and composer. "Luckily it was in tune, so I was able to pick out the melody to ‘Silent Night' by ear. I discovered the notes on my own. Then the next one I played was ‘Happy Birthday.' The family said, ‘Wow!' because I was learning really fast. My uncle could also play accordion, and just by watching him, I was picking up everything. Then, by the time I was six, I started coming up with my own melodies. It was natural to me. My parents noticed it and hired a professional musician, who used to come to my home. I would sit with him and play my new songs: simple melodies yet with a structure. I was writing all kinds of things." (photo: Frankie Celenza)

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Michel Camilo: Teller of Tales

Twenty-five albums into a prolific and varied career, the pianist has lots to talk about

 

PUBLISHEDFEBRUARY 3, 2020FEBRUARY 3, 2020  – BYJEFF TAMARKIN

Michel Camilo

Pianist, bandleader, and composer Michel Camilo (photo: Frankie Celenza)

You don't get an answer when you ask Michel Camilo a question, you get a story-like the one about how he gravitated toward the piano as a child growing up in the Dominican Republic.

 

"When I turned almost five, that Christmas my mother and father gave me a very tiny accordion," says the now 65-year-old pianist, bandleader, and composer. "Luckily it was in tune, so I was able to pick out the melody to ‘Silent Night' by ear. I discovered the notes on my own. Then the next one I played was ‘Happy Birthday.' The family said, ‘Wow!' because I was learning really fast. My uncle could also play accordion, and just by watching him, I was picking up everything. Then, by the time I was six, I started coming up with my own melodies. It was natural to me. My parents noticed it and hired a professional musician, who used to come to my home. I would sit with him and play my new songs: simple melodies yet with a structure. I was writing all kinds of things.

 

 

"But my first love was piano," Camilo continues. "My grandparents had one of those old uprights, which all of us would play. I didn't know how to play the piano well. I just moved my right hand, but not the left yet, because I was used to playing the accordion. Then when I was nine, I asked my parents to send me to the conservatory, and they made a deal with me: If I did well the first year, they would buy my first piano. And I did great! That first year, believe it or not, to practice I drew the keyboard on a piece of cardboard, because I could hear in my head all the notes. My teachers were wonderful, and by the time I turned 16, I was already a member of the National Symphony Orchestra, playing the piano parts and the percussion parts as well."

 

Then there are the stories behind the songs on Camilo's latest album, Essence. It's his 25th in all, and a very special one to him. For the release, he assembled a big band-only his third big-band recording-to revisit, with new arrangements, some of his favorite compositions from throughout his 35-year recording career. Three of the 11 tracks were inspired by drummers and percussionists who have figured prominently in his life: "And Sammy Walked In," the leadoff track, is a nod to Sammy Figueroa, the conguero in Camilo's first sextet, back in the days when he held forth regularly at the long-defunct jazz club Mikell's on Manhattan's Upper West Side, while "Mongo's Blues" is for Mongo Santamaría.

 

"He was my neighbor," Camilo recalls of the latter musician. "I was always asking him to tell me stories about 52nd Street, the scene at the clubs and him coming up in the ranks and his encounters with all the legends of jazz, including Coltrane. He told me about ‘Afro Blue' and [Herbie Hancock's] ‘Watermelon Man,'" a Top 10 single for Santamaría.

 

And then there's "Repercussions," Camilo's tribute to Art Blakey. "Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers used to play at Mikell's too," he says. "He didn't play at the Vanguard, which would have been what you expected. All the youngsters, we would be in the audience, hanging out and listening to him, and he would go around the tables and find out who was an up-and-coming musician. I was one of those. One night, he came to my table and said, ‘You're a pianist? Do you want to sit in?' And he pulled me out from my table. I said, ‘What do we play?' He told me, ‘No, that's not the way it works.' I said, ‘How does it work?' He said, ‘You dig your own grave and we bury you in it.'"