Michel Camilo: What’s Up?

Michel Camilo has never been one to shy away from a challenge, whether fronting a remarkably agile power piano trio like the one showcased in the documentary Calle 54, leading a big band, going one-on-one with flamenco guitarist Tomatito, guesting with orchestras (often performing his own arrangements) or creating film scores. For his first unaccompanied album since 2005’s well-received Solo, the Dominican Republican-born virtuoso reveals even greater depths in his fluent approach to solo piano. He uses his own compositions and enticing rearrangements of jazz and Latin standards to amplify the rhythmic ingenuity, textural creativity and technical brilliance for which he’s already well known.

The selection is admirably rangy, with Camilo using prodigious runs to find new pathways across, through and around the polyrhythmic intricacies of Paul Desmond’s “Take Five,” applying lush chordings, unexpected detours and thematic re-phrasings to “Alone Together,” and imbuing Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” with jagged swing and a real sense of playfulness. Cuban pianist Compay Segundo’s “Chan Chan” may be the dramatic highlight, its dark-toned theme building and building, gaining in power and inventiveness each time through.

Camilo’s seven originals are similarly engaging, starting with the driving left-hand and blues-and-boogie incantations of opener “What’s Up?” and crystalline ballad “A Place in Time.” At nearly six and a half minutes, “Sandra’s Serenade” moves from music-box delicacy to classical grandeur. “Island Beat” has Camilo fully accessing Afro-Caribbean rhythms and unleashing grand flourishes. And after other bracing originals-“Paprika” and “On Fire”-Camilo closes with a quiet reverie, “At Dawn.” Seldom a dull moment here.

Philip Booth

Philip Booth is a longtime arts journalist and bass player based in Florida. Formerly the pop music critic for the Tampa Tribune, he has contributed to many national publications, recently including the Washington PostJazziz, and Relix. His byline also has appeared in DownBeat, Bass Player, Billboard, Variety, Spin, Rolling Stone, and several academic journals. The debut CD from his band, Acme Jazz Garage, gained airplay on about 35 radio stations across the US.