Versatile pianist gives jazz a new, bigger sound
New York — MICHEL Camilo is a classical and jazz pianist, a conductor, an arranger, and a composer of every kind of music from symphonic to rock. He writes for film sound tracks, soap operas, and a lot more, including his own jazz trio and sextet. His song ``Why Not?'' recorded by the Manhattan Transfer, is a Grammy Award winner. ``I wrote my first tune when I was 4,'' Mr. Camilo says in an interview, his dark brown eyes sparkling. ``It was called `The Light in Your Eyes.' I was in love with my cousin, so I wrote it for her.''
Camilo, who was born in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, learned his earliest music lessons on a piano keyboard drawn on a piece of cardboard. Later his parents were able to buy him a piano.
They encouraged his studies but never thought of music as a career. He went on to study at the National Conservatory in Santo Domingo for 13 years. After graduation he joined the National Symphony as pianist, percussionist, and apprentice conductor.
It was as a teen-ager that Camilo fell in love with jazz -- by listening to records played on the radio.
``I didn't know what it was at that time, so I started asking people, and they said that's jazz. I started listening to Charlie Parker's records, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, and it just turned my head completely around. Because I was already in a heavy classical environment, I could appreciate the pianistic ability of a Tatum or a Peterson.''
Determined to learn to play jazz, Camilo taught himself from records, and gave his first jazz concert at age 15.
A few years later American percussionist Gordon Gottlieb discovered Camilo in Santo Domingo and encouraged him to come to New York.
Camilo, then recently married, couldn't afford to make the move at the time. But eight years ago he did arrive in New York, where he found plenty of work on Broadway and TV, and in films.
He played for Bob Fosse's ``Dancin' '' and ultimately became associate musical director of that show.
During this period, he continued to study, at Juilliard and Mannes College of Music. But eventually he decided to pursue his career as a jazz performer and composer, because he felt he had something new to offer:
``I am trying to bring new . . . elements to the music, not only harmonics but also a lot of rhythm. Those are my roots. Since I come from the Caribbean, I was exposed to all the different rhythmic elements of the African culture.''
But because of his extensive classical background, he adds, ``I believe that I am bringing into jazz not only the percussive edge of the Caribbean rhythms, but all the classical music that I was exposed to in my musical training.'' Today jazz people like Wynton Marsalis and Paquito deRivera ``have been classically trained, and that gives us a command of the instrument and aesthetic values that are important for the music.''
How does Camilo apply these principles to his jazz playing?
``In my sextet, I bring my knowledge of orchestration to make it sound larger than a sextet. In the trio I would define my style as a pianist as orchestral, chordal, lyrical and with the percussive edge of a symphony orchestra.''
The result is both highly energetic and lyrical. Although Camilo loves diversity (``I don't like it when people try to put you in a box, because they are limiting your capabilities''), he admits he is going for a definable style, so that people will recognize his music: ``I want people to be able to say that's Michel Camilo's music.''
For his work in film and TV, Camilo makes use of current technology -- synthesizers, computers, sequencers, and so on -- but in his own performance he keeps these at a minimum. ``The human element is so important. I use a little synthesizer
with the sextet, but in the trio I concern myself with the acoustic piano only.''
And he sees a certain limitation in synthesized sound:
``I believe that eventually people are going to get very tired of electronic sounds, and one day they're also going to get tired of all this sequencing and perfect music, and they are going to look for improvisers and people who can perform live. These live musicians are going to be a limited breed, because most of the young generation of musicians are so concerned about learning how to program, as opposed to how to play.''
How does Camilo define the right way to play?
``I think you have to become one with your instrument. I take chances every time. I create new things every time I play -- I like to go for the edge. I don't feel afraid any more of risking anything, of going for anything on the piano.''
And, he adds, ``The heart is the first thing, then the technique.''
Camilo will appear in England, France, and Spain in the fall and at the Berlin Jazz Festival in November.