Fiona Ross Interviews…Michel Camilo
I am so humbled and honoured to share with you my interview with the Grammy®, Emmy® and Latin Grammy® award winning pianist and composer Michel Camilo as my first interview for The Jazz UK.
He needs no introduction, but I would like to share with you how I first became aware of his work. I was first introduced to Michel Camilo, when I met someone who had decided to take a year out traveling the world. He had very little luggage with him, understandably, and as this was pre streaming, a small case of CDs. I was fascinated to see what music he had decided to take on his epic journey. It was all Michel Camilo. I had not heard of him and started to explore his music. I was quite simply blown away and he has been a huge inspiration to me ever since.
FR: The absolute joy and passion you have for music is clear in every performance – your energy, emotion and you’re always smiling! What drives you to do what you do?
MC: I am an optimistic kind of person by nature so for me the future is always bright!
I try to live “In the Moment” pretty much and focus on the happiness and well-being of the here and now.
Also, I’m always grateful for the creative flow of fresh ideas within me.
Music has been and is my life so I consider myself very lucky and blessed to be able to work in a profession that I truly love. My approach to live is with a creative positive attitude and this is really drives that energy and emotion present in my music!
FR: Your track Caribe appears on three of your albums, with different arrangements. What is it about this track that inspires you to explore it more than some of your others?
MC: Caribe was inspired by sounds I grew up listening to from my uncle and my aunt playing the traditional Latin-Caribbean piano stylings.
For me it is like going “back to the future” each time I perform it. Usually I start with a solo piano Intro which is in the traditional style referring to those colors and textures,
and then at some point the song takes me into a New York jazz club atmosphere with its contemporary improvisations and intensity.
This song symbolizes my way of paying tribute to my roots while finding my own style as a composer/performer/improviser.
Yes, you are right, Caribe has been recorded in many versions over the years, i.e.: with my Jazz Trio, in Solo Piano, as a Piano Duet (by Katia & Marielle Labèque),
as a Flute and Piano Duo (with Rie Akagi), in Sextet (“Two Much” film soundtrack), and twice with my Big Band (Studio and Live).
FR: You have played around the world, in many wonderful venues and your recent album ‘Live in London’, was recorded during your Performance at The Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre. What led you to choose that venue for a live album?
MC: In reality this was supposed to be a concert performance without a recording. Yes, but what really happened is that about 2 weeks before the concert my friends and concert producers Sandy Strallen & Michelle Gallacher (from Completely Concerts) had mentioned to our agent Ina Dittke about their wish to preserve that evening as a “personal souvenir,” since it was the first time that I was performing a Solo Piano concert in the UK and also at The Queen Elizabeth Hall; so, I very much liked the idea and gave them the go ahead to do it. Then, I did not even have a chance to listen to the actual recording until a year later and WOW! What a surprise!! That night I had felt that the concert had been really special for me, and here it was! Then immediately I started talking with my wife and personal manager Sandra about the possibility of releasing it as an album. I was thrilled to share it with all my fans worldwide, so that’s how the project came about to be and became my first Live solo piano album!! ‘Live in London’ captures such a truly special evening which I will always cherish. I really felt my inner child vibrating at a high level and in complete harmony with the fresh flow of new ideas and emotions, as I deeply enjoyed the process of exploring the many dynamic colors and nuances of a perfect acoustic setting and sharing them with a truly fantastic listening audience. A truly magical evening!
FR: Do you have any pre gig rituals? Or any dos/don’ts before performing?
MC: I love to take a very long hot bath and use that time to meditate and get ready for the evening concert. Once at the theatre and after the soundcheck, I try to have a few minutes alone before going on stage in order to focus on the performance. My list of don’ts idealistically speaking is to never do a “business meeting” or an interview right before the performance since that would kind of “drain” my energy…
FR: The speed and dexterity of your playing is quite something. What is your practice routine?
MC: I like practicing with a metronome since it doesn’t lie, and then the benefit is that when you play with a drummer your rhythm will be right on and it will also be relaxed… Ideally, besides the Jazz improvisations, I still love playing lots of Classical repertoire, among my favorites are Chopin, Liszt, Ravel, Rachmaninoff, Bach, Scarlatti, Scriabin, Lecuona, and Gershwin, and many others. For technique, I like Christoph von Dohnanyi’s “Exercises for the Professional Pianist”, Slonimsky’s “Thesaurus of Scales” and also, I still enjoy studying Chromatic Harmony, Orchestral Scores and Music Composition textbooks. I find them all excellent tools to keep you on track and in shape. Also, I try to memorize a solo and play it in different keys, since this is good for developing a “flexible dexterity.”
FR: You have worked with some simply amazing musicians, but only ever recorded one track with a vocalist – Forbidden Fruit. Did this song have a special meaning to you?
MC: “Forbidden Fruit” is a composition of mine with lyrics by Julie Eigenberg, this one came about because at that time Julie sang with “French Toast” which was one of the first bands I played with in New York; so later, I decided to include that song as part of my own Sextet album titled “On The Other Hand.” But there is another track with a vocalist, and it is a part of the album MICHEL CAMILO & TOMATITO “Spain Again”, the singer and renowned Latin Pop artist is my dear friend – Juan Luis Guerrra, and the track is a cover of his famous song “Amor de Conuco.” It is a truly beautiful collaboration of Voice, Piano and Flamenco Guitar.
FR: Education is another passion of yours and the Michel Camilo Scholarship award at Berklee College of Music, is a wonderful opportunity for young musicians. Do you have any words of wisdom for young musicians, you would like to share with us?
MC: In the Dominican Republic, we only use to have a Classical Conservatory, but we did not have a Jazz school, so the musicians had to learn by listening and studying the albums and transcribing the sheet music (just like I did); so, one kind of self-taught oneself… Over the years, the situation happily has changed and now we do have several ongoing Jazz programs and promising young talent coming up… My reason to establish the “Michel Camilo Scholarship” at Berklee College of Music (in Boston, USA) was to give these young Dominican musicians a real opportunity to further their Jazz studies at a renowned institution and hopefully help them in pursuing an international career later on. I would encourage the young especially in Jazz to work on developing their unique style and strive to be a better player/improviser every day. It takes a lot of hard work to be able to achieve that “special something” in your playing that the fans will identify and connect with. Be curious, enjoy the process of self-discovery, and never stop dreaming! This will be your lifetime quest!!
FR: What are you plans for 2018? Can we get excited about any London gigs or new album plans?
MC: This year I will be coming to Europe in March, July, August and November.
Still no set date for London, but I would really enjoy it very much if I can come back and perform in 2018. There are a few projects that I have “on my list” to record: a new Big Band Album, my Piano Concerto No. 2 “Tenerife” together my most recent composition “Concerto for Jazz Trio & Symphony Orchestra” which I premiered last April 2017 with the Detroit Symphony conducted by Maestro Leonard Slatkin. Also, I would like to record another Trio album. So, the music never stops! Keep Swingin’!!
FR:You are a true inspiration – thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us, such an honour.
MC: Thank you Fiona, it’s been my pleasure!
Published March 2018