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.’”
Getting at the Essence
Essence is Camilo’s followup to 2017’s Live in London, a solo piano performance, which followed the previous year’s Spain Forever, an album of duets with flamenco guitarist Tomatito. Camilo has recorded and performed live with sextets, symphony orchestras, and—more prolifically than anything else—in trio settings. He’s composed soundtracks, classical works, and jazz that dodges easy categorization. Although there’s a pronounced Latin influence to much of his output, he doesn’t slot solely into Latin jazz; his 2006 album-length interpretation of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue heads in another direction completely, and his early trio recordings, particularly those with bassist Anthony Jackson and drummer Dave Weckl, only hint at Camilo’s cultural roots.
“It keeps me fresh,” he says about the diversity, “because each one has a different approach. But, for example, playing with symphony orchestras has made me a stronger player, because I have to project acoustically in front of a 90-piece orchestra, and be able to deliver the sound and work on the phrasing and be very aware of this monumental elephant. You have to move and phrase together and breathe together. It makes you a better musician in certain ways, that challenge. Playing solo is also challenging because it gives you total liberty, but you have to be very careful when you have so much liberty. You don’t want to lose your focus, and you want to be concise and honest.”
Throughout Camilo’s canon, one consistent trait has always been meticulousness, both in his own playing and in the arrangements, regardless of the style. “That’s a signature of my music, the tightness of the ensemble and the precision and its challenging passages. What I did on Essence was to lay down all of my rhythm tracks—and the big band knew what was going on because we had already rehearsed—then I brought in the horns and conducted them.”
“I asked Art Blakey, ‘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.’”
Essence was produced by Camilo, with most of the music cut at the Power Station at Berklee in New York. All of it was composed by the artist, with arrangements by longtime associate Michael Phillip Mossman, who also contributes trumpet and flugelhorn. Some of the other musicians on the session had worked with Camilo before, while several—including trombonists Michael Dease, Steve Davis, and Jason Jackson—were new to him. “It was a nice assembly of people and they all played their very best,” Camilo says.
It almost didn’t happen the way it did, though. There’s a story for that too. The Power Station studio had been acquired by Berklee College of Music in 2017, to be used for educational purposes, just as Camilo was starting to piece together the project. “They were telling me there’s a deadline, because they were going to shut it down for renovations that summer,” he says. “I said, ‘No, I want the room the way I know it, before you start breaking the walls. I know that room, I know that board, and I know how it sounds because I’ve done so many albums there in the different rooms.’ So it was a back and forth until they said, ‘Okay, this is the date we’re going to shut down.’ Then the challenge became, who is in town, who’s back from the road? Michael [Mossman] started making phone calls until everyone was back.”