Many of today's jazz musicians look to history for inspiration, but Michel Camilo, the brilliant pianist from the Dominican Republic, is among the few capable of transforming past into future. With his sparkling technique, exuberant personality and contemporary outlook, he's truly a musician of the '90s, fusing jazz, Latin and classical influences into a bravura style that's uniquely his own. He's performed and recorded solo, in duos and groups, as well as with big bands and symphony orchestras, but he's best known for his work with trios, extending the classic combination of piano, bass and drums into the postmodern era.
On his debut album for Tropijazz as a leader (he's also featured on Hands In Rhythm a duet album with percussion wizard Giovanni Hidalgo), Camilo reconstructs a dozen Latin-tinged jazz classics using four different trio combinations. "The title is 'Thru My Eyes'" he says, "because it's the way I see these songs today. I grew up with most of them, and they inspired my jazz writing and playing in one way or another. I picked standards that were not necessarily written by Hispanic people but that had a Latin flavor either in the groove or the melody."
"Basically, I tried to make my own versions, although sometimes I stayed closer to certain previous ones that I always loved. I stretched out here and there, on some more than the others. Sometimes I reinterpreted the songs really far from the version that inspired me, still referring to the original groove, but taking it somewhere else."
Camilo's complex, almost orchestral trio arrangements demand the highest level of musicianship from his virtuoso accompanists. Anthony Jackson, a member of Camilo's original trio, is a master of the six-stringed contrabass guitar, an instrument he designed himself. Lincoln Goines, who played on Camilo's first major-label album, is featured here on acoustic bass, as well as bassist John Patitucci, who achieved fame in Chick Corea's trio, and appears for the first time with Michel. Drummer Cliff Almond is a frequent Camilo recording partner because of his understanding of both the Latin and jazz traditions. And Cuban drum prodigy Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez supplies Latin percussion effects as well as straight-ahead rhythms. "His drum set includes bongos and timbales, and he's got three cowbells and four wood blocks," Camilo explains. "It's a special sound that he's developed for this recording."
The album opens with the standard "Poinciana", adapted from a recording by piano-trio pioneer Ahmad Jamal. "This one is the closest to a previous version, kind of a remake" says Camilo. "Still, I played the melody with a slightly different groove on my left hand, but still linked it to Ahmad's original because harmonically he has been a big influence. I played a solo on the song and told Cliff to give me a more modern drum beat, but I wanted to be cool with this one and keep the mood intact."
"Perdido", a Duke Ellington classic, was actually co-written by Ellington's Puerto Rican trombonist, Juan Tizol. "I got inspired by Duke's big band version," says Camilo, "but I tried to apply it to the trio, so it sounds like a mini-big band. The voicings are as if I were writing for horns. It's all arranged like a tight swinging ensemble, with a Latin beat underpinning the melody." Although "Watermelon Man" was a huge hit for Mongo Santamaria, it was written and first recorded by Herbie Hancock. "My version is closer to Herbie's, but the challenge was to play the groove on the left hand and keep the loose melody on the right at the same time," Camilo says. "I played the solo from the blues side."
With Patitucci and Hernandez, Camilo turns Dizzy Gillespie's "A Night In Tunisia" into a three-way "tour-de-force". "Dizzy had done different versions of this tune," he says, "and before he passed away, he was playing a slower version with the melody stretched out. So I was inspired by this later one, stretching some of the melody but preserving the original fast tempo." The same trio turns Horace Silver's trademark "Song For My Father" into a jazz "guajira". "I wanted it to be introspective," says Camilo, "with a moody flavor."
"Chick Corea's 'Armando's Rhumba' always attracted me, because of its romantic side," says Camilo, "although his version was flamenco oriented, I tried to emphasize more of the Latin side by displacing the rhythm of the original melody to fit the 'clave'." Camilo plays the calypso theme of Sonny Rollins' "St. Thomas" to a Puerto Rican "bomba" beat. "I thought of a party in a town square," he says, "where just one person (my right hand) starts the party, then everybody joins in and the whole thing keeps on growing until it's like a big party scene."
Camilo's radical rearrangement of Tito Puente's "Oye Como Va" with holds the familiar theme until the very end, while teasing the listener with quotes from other tunes. "People would never expect the song to go so far out harmonically," says Camilo, "but it does." His bluesy rendition of Mongo Santamaria's "Afro Blue" is equally novel. "Where there was an eight-bar vamp in the middle of the song," he says, "I went into an African chant in 9/8 instead, a lament which piano and bass play in unison. It's almost like a meditation on the song -very cool and very deep."
"Mambo Inn" was written by Mario Bauza for the Machito orchestra, but Camilo got the idea to record it from George Benson and McCoy Tyner's version. "It's a totally different arrangement," he says, "with an intro rhythm based on the carnival beat of Santiago de Cuba. Then, for the melody I used a songo beat." Charlie Parker's "My Little Suede Shoes" is perhaps the least familiar tune on the album. "Bird based the melody on a cha-cha beat," says Camilo, "and I wanted to preserve that flavor, but the arrangement has kind of a tongue-in-cheek flavor, like an inside joke with a subtle touch."
The album concludes with Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo's Latin-jazz landmark Manteca. "This was the biggest technical challenge for me on the album," says Camilo, "how to apply the big band arrangement of the original version to the piano. When we were in the studio, my musicians said, 'What you really wrote is a suite based on Manteca,' since it goes so many different places. But what I wanted was to explore the different sides of Manteca, from Chico Farrill's original arrangement, to the version I played way back when I was a sideman with Paquito D'Rivera."
Like the great musicians who inspired him, Michel Camilo has demonstrated again that crowd-pleasing and creativity are not incompatible. With its insightful arrangements, effervescent interplay and unflagging high spirits, Thru My Eyes represents Latin jazz at its best and brightest.
Larry Birnbaum (Jazz Writer)