A long time ago Michel Camilo arrived at a perfect format to express his music: the Trio. In the trinity of Charles Flores and Giovanni Hidalgo he seemed to have honed this to perfection. The intensity of Mr. Flores’ playing and the depth of emotion was so moving and perfect for Michel Camilo, that it appeared that the Cuban-born bassist was a gift from God. No one—not even Anthony Jackson, who knew Mr. Camilo’s music intimately, or the virtuoso Marc Johnson—responded to the emotional integrity of Mr. Camilo’s music as Charles Flores did. They had a taste for one another’s music in Spirit of the Moment (Telarc, 2007), and then there was that priceless encounter during a concert where Dizzy Gillespie’s “Con Alma” was played by the Michel Camilo Trio at the 39th Internationale Jazzwoche, 2008 in Burghausen, Germany when music is heard at its purest. There are several of these, of course, during Michel Camilo’s baroque introduction, which is brimful with glorious glissandi and Florentine arpeggios, but the moment of utter purity comes when Charles Flores begins to play.
It is the fifth note he strikes about 1m 52s into the piece. The note is held for a couple of seconds as Flores appears to meditate on it. So deep does Flores delve into his own soul that the note appears to hang on his very heart-beat. The note is not quite round; somewhat elliptical, it rises and before it can fall, Flores applies that little touch of feeling to the string that the death of the note is delayed just that little but so that it resonates not just in the ear but in the very heart of the body—everybody in that house in Burghausen—that listens to it. It flushes the mind of all clutter; almost all thought so that it can occupy the senses, moisten the breath and shut the eye as the soul is bared and is lifted up into a heavenly space. Not only is that encounter a different dream sequence altogether, but it is grist for a different grinding. However, it was that performance, on that day that seemed to bind the two musicians’ souls together. Still the whole concept of Mano a Mano sealed the deal between Charles Flores and the pianist. It seemed that one could or would not survive without the other.
Mr. Camilo’s pianism had been lifted to a new level. He was redefining the trio once again and in Charles Flores the pianist had found a doppelgänger; a soul brother who seemed to breathe for the pianist when, playing intimate phrases, held his breath so as not to put too much pressure on the notes he was playing. Alternatively, Mr. Camilo would infuse the playing of Mr. Flores’ playing with the breath of life when the bassist was about to turn blue in the face for want of air; something he simply could not have as taking a breath might cause a string to vibrate much more than the bassist had intended. There are so many moments like these on Mano a Mano that at times the musicians seem to play seemingly with one breath. Not only is the title track one such breathtaking stretch of magical interpolation, but “Naima” is replete with this shared emotion. And it is here that Mr. Camilo breaks new ground in his playing, not only when he is playing with the trio; but if the pianist’s playing is to be separated from the bass and percussion, it is almost possible to hear a gasp from the pianist as he waits with bated breath for Charles Flores and Giovanni Hidalgo to step in so that he could breathe a little more freely.
By the time calm returns Charles Flores and Giovanni Hidalgo are ascending the pedestal upon which “Alfonsina y el Mar” has been constructed. This is not a song composed by Michel Camilo, but in the singularly beautiful manner in which the trio plays it, there is probably no version better than the one on Mano a Mano. The song is stripped of all its virtuosity and suave curves. Expressed with elemental passion, grace and a slow-burning fire, Michel Camilo eggs on his miniature ensemble, seemingly instructing them to play from the heart. So perfect is Mr. Flores’ solo in time and space that everything seems to stop and all that can be felt are the musicians’ heartbeats. By the time it becomes necessary for Michel Camilo to solo the song has reached an almost holy place where it will take nothing but spirituality to play from then on. And this is exactly what happens as the song wends its way to its inevitable dénouement.
The pianist also has a very special relationship with the great percussionist. Giovanni Hidalgo is not simply a percussionist; not even a percussion colourist. Here the great one supersedes all description and the only terms in which he can and should be spoken of is as a musician’s musician. On “Yes” Mr. Hidalgo is sublime, bringing his congas to life, animating them with something no other musician has ever done, except perhaps the great Tata Güines. But he turns the congas into a musicality that has been unheard of until now. It is hardly possible to imagine finer playing; more melodious and almost harmonious interpretations of the chart by simply eating on the taut skins of his drums. Mr. Hidalgo does this again on “Rumba Pa’ ti” and he keeps it going throughout the introduction until Charles Flores steps in and turns this piece into another vast set of grand measures. Michel Camilo responds in kind, stepping aside from time to time, as the song winds up, giving Giovanni Hidalgo room to broaden the range of his battery of percussion, to include timbales and cymbals as well. The resultant crescendo brings the song to a close. Then there is a portent of the future. The final chart on the album foretells Michel Camilo’s new quest: to play solo.