Home Interviews Keyboard Titans: In Conversation with Michel Camilo

Keyboard Titans: In Conversation with Michel Camilo

“Depending on what track you’re listening to, “Spirit of the Moment” is presenting one of three big ideas. There’s Latin jazz as we know it. There’s jazz as we know it that is unmistakably informed by the cultural backgrounds of his new trio… And there is the contemplative, rubato ballad, which reflects no particular identity or place. Each idea could generate a whole album, and it would be good to hear this fleet band make any of those records.” New York Times
Michel Camilo is an extraordinary composer and pianist. He is also a bandleader, lecturer, and visiting professor and has produced chart-topping music. He has won several awards, including the Grammy, Latin Grammy, and Emmy awards, and has received the highest civilian honors in his native country. Michel Camilo’s artistry and virtuosity bridge the genres of jazz, classical, popular, and world music. He is a brilliant pianist with a unique technique, and his compositions are infused with Caribbean rhythms and jazz harmonies. Watching Michel Camilo perform is like witnessing a tropical storm unleashed on 88 Keys. Academy Award-winning filmmaker Fernando Trueba, who featured Camilo in his documentary film Calle 54, says that Michel Camilo is one of the top all-around musicians. He excels in jazz, classical, Latin American, and film music; every time he plays, it feels like witnessing a miracle.


Tomas Peña: Spirit of the Moment was released five years ago and is still going strong.
Michel Camilo: That’s right. It came out of a long tour where the trio did forty-two live performances.
TP: I’ve seen the trio on several occasions. Spectacular!
MC: Thank you. I am very proud of the trio. The advantage has been time. Dafnis has been with me for four years, and Charles has been with me for seven years. There is no substitute for honing your skills and polishing your sound, the nuances, and the textures. Our level of communication has reached the point where I call it a “seventh sense.” It’s incredible how we hear things the same way and complement each other’s playing.
TP: Is the trio your format of choice?
MC: It’s my core foundation and my center. The trio is a mini-orchestra; that’s how I write for it. I like to challenge my sidemen, not just with the interplay that comes from improvising but also with the orchestral aspect. For example, the charts contain big band and ensemble moments. That keeps us interested in the music.
TP: The trio has developed a (musical) “language.”
MC: That’s what makes it so rewarding for the audience. We are seeing the fruits of our labor because we have been touring the album for two years. During the tour, we performed in every situation imaginable, from the smallest to the largest clubs in the U. S. and Tokyo, where we played for a crowd of 5000 people.
TP: What does the title – Spirit of the Moment – signify?
MC: It reflects what happens within the trio. That was the whole thing, to try and capture the magic, that nanosecond, that indefinable magic that happens when everything falls into the right place. When we see (and hear) things the same way, they complement one another perfectly, and the energy is just right. That’s what I call the Spirit of the Moment.
TP: You composed the material in a short period.
MC: I wanted the process to be organic and 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 interacted. When we entered the studio, we asked the people at Telarc Records to record directly to the master. That way, everything is organically focused on the concept of the album. It’s about the immediacy and the moment that can never be repeated, which is hard to capture because it’s elusive. That makes me look forward to each concert and why we can play the same material daily and make it sound fresh.
TP: The more you perform the material, the “fresher” it sounds.
MC: That’s what I mean! It’s the ultimate trust between the leader and the sideman and a three-way conversation. That’s why you see so many smiles and winks onstage. We know each other so well that I don’t understand how we do it. We were playing in Boston at the Regatta Bar recently and did something we did not even talk about. We heard it the same way, and nobody fought it, and when no one opposes the musical discourse, it’s a great flow. You discover new shades, new colors, and nuances. Sometimes, a bright song becomes obscure. All of that has a lot of value for me because it keeps us on our toes. Also, we encounter many types of audiences worldwide, and each one reacts to the music differently. For some, a jazz performance is like a classical concert. They don’t applaud until the end. Japan respects us so much that they want to hear every detail, but it’s weird because we are used to interacting with the audience. Unless you are very seasoned, you could get easily unnerved!
TP: Tell me about your obsession with the number 3.
MC: You know about that?
TP: You discussed it in a recent interview on National Public Radio.
MC: The number three is in all of my recordings. You 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 there is the Holy Trinity – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. 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 is three plus 1 – three original tunes and one standard, and the last sections is 1 + 3 – one standard and three original tunes. If you listen to the song, Giant Steps, you will see that the arrangement is based on the number 3. Also, there are three syllables in words, Giant Steps. It is all there! The treatment of Nardis builds on the number 3 because it is a Buleria.
TP: You present the material in three segments. Tell me about Part 1, “Body.”
MC: It’s more intense and robust. All of the tunes in the first part are originals because I wanted to give the album a personal touch and show what I am about, not just as a player but also as a composer. It features four original tunes: Just Now, My Secret Place, A Place in Time, and Representations. The album has three ballads: My Secret Place, A Place in Time, and Liquid Crystal, though the latter is a little more hidden because it has a groove under it. Also, all the titles have three words. For me, the album is like a book divided into three chapters with four parts that tell a story. It’s no coincidence that the album starts in C Major and ends in C Minor. The album was constructed organically.
TP: Part 2, titled “Mind” pays tribute to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans and Wayne Shorter.
MC: Artists I grew up listening to and admiring as players, composers, and creators. It’s my take on their music. Also, it’s what they gave me as a jazz musician. My formation and how they helped me to get where I am today harmonically and melodically. Also, they took chances with their careers and were able to shift and stay current through every period of their lives.
TP: Regrettably, they paid a price for being creative thinkers.
MC: They were attacked, but that’s part of being a jazz musician. When there is no risk involved, it gets very dull. It’s the most essential thing in jazz. I teach master classes worldwide and tell my students that we will change daily. You must notice the changes and allow the music to change. The more we travel and encounter new places and cultures, the more ideas come to us. You have to be open to change. If you don’t change, you are in a comfortable place that can be the ultimate killer for your creative juices. That’s why you see me doing many projects and jumping fences (Laughs).
TP: Lastly, Part 3, “Soul.”
MC: The third part goes to a different place, especially the last take on Solar. It’s like a buildup to an abstract place, yet there is a lot of power. I have a friend who directs films, and he always says that a good movie dies in the last third, and the plot has to thicken to surprise the audience. I try to surprise the listener and take it to a place where you never think we would go. I just told the trio to listen to each other and create a chart. Often, I wouldn’t say I like playing the melody, so I hint at it. We do it with John Coltrane’s Giants Steps as well. The challenge there was to make a concise rendition. At our live concerts, we do a standard version of Giant Steps. The idea was to tune in two minutes and get in and out. We have played these songs so much that now we can create with total freedom; in other words, we are not reading a part or even putting a chart in front of anyone, just hearing each other. That’s why I call it Explorations.
TP: How do you remain so focused and passionate?
MC: It isn’t easy, but you have to be disciplined. You may want to hang out, but you might not be able to because you have to do a concert the next day. You can’t do that to your audience; you can’t get wasted. You have to be in shape, which means going to bed early, eating well, and listening to music. Charles and Dafnis are always hooked up to their MP3 players.
TP: What do Charles Flores and Dafnis Prieto bring to the music, individually and collectively?
MC: Charles is very committed to his music. He’s always practicing and listening to new music. He’s also instrumental in my new version of the trio. His first recording with me was Live at Blue Note, and you could tell early on that he was committed to me and my music. It was a real challenge because he came to the trio after bassist Anthony Jackson, one of the geniuses. At the time, I wanted to change the trio’s sound and go with an acoustic bass. Charles is an electric bass player, but I told him he would play the acoustic bass. I asked him if he could handle it because there was a lot of intensity, and his answer was, “I will work for it,” and he did. He developed an incredible touch, sound, and pitch. It is the first time that I have used the Arco bass, and the audience loves it. It expands the possibilities of the jazz trio. Also, the fact that we share Caribbean roots is something we don’t talk about but draw on.
I have been a supporter of Dafnis from the beginning. I wrote the liner notes for his first recording. I could see right off that he was a hungry musician and a very committed force to be reckoned with in the jazz world, and he has never disappointed me. On the contrary, he continues to surprise me and keeps growing as we grow. I call it a journey of self-discovery. Some of our best concerts are when we are exhausted. You could call it a second wind. Afterward, we need a nap and lots of food. Dafnis is always hungry! The whole thing comes down to supporting one another. When one of us is down, the other gives him moral support. Being on the road is hard, but all those feelings and nuances go into the music. After all, music is charged with our inner feelings and life experiences.
TP: What are your thoughts on the current state of jazz?
MC: People don’t realize that we are living in a golden era of jazz. Musicians of my generation are touring and playing consistently. The last time we played in Tokyo we played to a crowd of 5000 people, and that’s not the only concert where we get audiences that size. We did a gig in Germany last year for German television. Things like that are happening all the time.


Following a two-year battle with cancer, Cuban bassist Charles Flores died in 2012. His final project, Impressions of Graffiti, was released by Dafnison Music.
Dafnis Prieto thrives as a drummer, composer, arranger, leader, educator, author, and MacArthur Fellow. His latest project, the instructional book, A World of Rhythmic Possibilities, is described as “one of the most important books on modern drumming by one of the instruments finest exponents of the art and craft of drumming.”


A graduate of Empire State College with a dual major in journalism and Latin American studies, Editor-in-Chief Tomas Peña has spent years applying his knowledge and writing skills to the promotion of great musicians. A specialist in the crossroads between jazz and Latin music, Peña has written extensively on the subject. His writing appears on Latin Jazz Network; Chamber Music America magazine and numerous other publications.


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