The impish name of his album, What’s Up? would seem to suggest that Michel Camilo is having more fun on his second solo album than he did on the 2005 record entitled simply Solo. However there is much more to the album than a mere frolic on the grandest keyboard in music. Mr. Camilo is a complex character and while he is a showman and a thrilling virtuoso who likes to dazzle audiences with his extraordinary technique, his artistry comes from a deep, almost brooding musical intellect and he is as often profoundly soulful. As a result Mr. Camilo’s music can be intricate, soaking in emotion and often extremely philosophical as well. This is part of Mr. Camilo’s appeal whether he is playing in large and small ensembles—as he displayed on his recent album, Mano a Mano as well as other albums he has released in the past.
This chameleon-like aspect of his personality is thrown into sharper focus when Mr. Camilo is alone with his instrument of choice: the magnificent grand piano. For this is when his right and left hands become animated; seeming to be, at once, separate parts of his body as well as extensions of a nervous system controlled by an enormous and fertile brain that it seems to act in consonance with his entire body. Mr. Camilo’s right hand is thus capable of slow, deliberate dalliances with notes that seem to suggest great and sentimental thoughts and emotions. At times like this Mr. Camilo might seem to play just a few notes and these will convey a series of interactions between characters in a beautiful narrative. At other times he might play a filigreed passage, complete with astounding runs and almost gymnastic arpeggios to suggest the mere instant of a dramatic pirouette between dancers in his musical drama. At all times his left hand maintains a sensational harmonic and rhythmic balance with his melodic theatrics. Astonishingly his left hand appears to work independently of his right hand and yet plays not only what is essential to the beauty of the piece he is playing but also to create ingenious contrapuntal music. In this regard Michel Camilo is quite unique.
On What’s Up? Mr. Camilo’s playing is beyond belief on the Paul Desmond’s classic chart, “Take Five”. In what was a challenging rhythmic figure written for piano, drums and bass together, Mr. Camilo creates the same figure with both his hands on the keyboard. Granted Dave Brubeck did the pioneering work with his quartet when the song was first premiered, but Mr. Camilo’s version captures the excitement and dramaturgy of the song with the dazzling interaction of his two hands, enhanced, no doubt by his prodigious use of the hard pedal. The pianist also does this on the unforgettable Howard Dietz/Arthur Schwartz chart, “Alone Together” and Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale,” as well as on Compay Segundo’s eternally gorgeous piece, “Chan Chan”. But there is something ethereal and exclusive that Mr. Camilo reserves for his originals: “A Place in Time” and “At Dawn”. The latter two pieces are almost like musical canvases of vivid still life paintings. Yet there are moments in the former piece when the ripple of water and the ghostly wisp of the wind are audible and the first drops of dew are visible in the interior landscape of the latter piece. This is not just a function of great writing, but also a characteristic of Mr. Camilo’s extraordinary pianism and in fact the holistic aspect of his prodigious musicianship.
These moments on his album clear the way and almost legitimise the element of fun on music such as the chart, “What’s Up?,” “Island Beat” and “Paprika”. Even here, when the pianist strips his music down to the mere interaction of two hands seeming to create the roistering interplay of fingers on the keyboard and feet on the pedals or, indeed, the floor on which they are tapping, there is also a profound sense of that which is interminably attractive about Michel Camilo’s great artistry and elementally beautiful music.
Tracks: What’s Up?; A Place in Time; Take Five; Sandra’s Serenade; Island Beat; Alone Together; Paprika; Love for Sale; Chan Chan; On Fire; At Dawn.
Personnel: Michel Camilo: piano.
Label: OKeh Records/Sony Music | Release date: May 2013