Per capita, a disproportionate percentage of the best jazz piano players now come from Spanish-speaking countries (especially Cuba). A partial list includes Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Chucho Valdés, David Virelles, Alfredo Rodríguez, Chano Dominguez and Edward Simon. Michel Camilo, from the Dominican Republic, has a larger following than most of them, and has won several Latin Grammys. Camilo is not one of the best piano players in jazz, but he is a special entertainer.
His strengths, which mostly have to do with his monster chops and the infectious joy he takes in displaying them, are manifest on Live in London. So are his limitations. On the opening track, the original “From Within,” he pummels and assaults the keyboard with maniacal fury. It is classic Camilo: 11 minutes of excess, bombast, melodrama and climactic extravagance. It is a wildly self-indulgent demonstration of every crowd-pleaser in his bag of cute tricks. The audience in Queen Elizabeth Hall loves it.
It takes enormous technical facility to play the piano this hard and fast and ornately. Even at full tilt, Camilo never seems to make a mistake. He also never touches feelings deeper than those that might be aroused by, say, the backflips of an Olympic gymnast.
Another original, “Island Beat,” based on the Cuban montuno, starts with a basic syncopated hammering vamp and expands it into a maelstrom. Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca” is also clever and ferocious and fun. For over 30 years, Camilo has been successfully turning a blend of Afro-Caribbean rhythms and jazz harmonic textures into exhilarating energy. He has been less successful at entering the spiritual, emotional and imaginative depths that make music art.