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Michel Camilo's voice is excited. Hoarse, but excited. The world-renowned pianist has just returned to his native Dominican Republic to perform and to pick up one of his government's highest honors: the Heraldic Order of Christopher Columbus, akin to knighthood. And the media, who weren't hipped to it until the last minute, have been ringing him since early morning.
Camilo may just be the greatest ambassador of his island nation today, taking his Caribbean-influenced jazz all over the globe. His three albums have met with tremendous success here in the United States, and the piano man is a mainstay on the Billboard jazz charts. His latest offering, Rendezvous, teams him with contrabass innovator Anthony Jackson, reunites him with onetime partner drummer Dave Weckl, and has already climbed as high as number five on the charts. Camilo could not be happier. You can hear the smile in his voice.
"Ever since my first release for Sony in '89 -- that one was a big hit from the word go -- it was like a dream coming true," he says. "Because you have to understand, when you come from the islands, everything seems so distant, you know what I'm saying? It's like you're always dreaming: 'I wish someday I could have my own place in the jazz world.' It's been a lot of work, but it's paying off bigtime."
Camilo has definitely pounded out a niche in the jazz pantheon. Already he has played for President Clinton at the White House and performed at the historic Newport Jazz Festival. When asked which was the greater thrill, he laughs and tries to be diplomatic: "Now wait a minute!" But his reply gives him away. After all, Camilo studied recordings of his heroes playing the Rhode Island festival A just being invited was enough to cap a career. But Camilo was invited back. Three times. This year, Newport's 40th anniversary, was his best reception, he says. "I got an amazing standing ovation this year. The audience was so much more into it than in years past. In years past, they were more interested in the sun!"
Many listeners are sitting up and taking notice of the pianist's sun-drenched tropical jazz. There's enough straight-ahead in the mix to keep trads happy, and enough island rhythm to keep booties shaking. In the process, audiences are getting an education, whether they know it or not. "It's based on certain rhythms we have down here," Camilo says of his jazz flavor. "Of course the most well-known is the merengue. But it's not just that. There are a lot of other rhythms that are practically not known -- pambiche, palos, songo. For every island in the Caribbean there are a lot of different rhythms. And of course there is a lot of cross-cultural movement. A lot of Caribbean rhythms get imported from other islands and they get their own personalities. For example, the soca rhythm from Trinidad here takes a different version. Songo, as well, which originally is Cuban. I guess it came here via Puerto Rico."
Camilo's own cross-culturalism was enhanced when he moved to New York, his current home, in 1979. "There was an ethnomusicologist and her name was Verna Gillis," he recalls. "And she used to have a loft on Tenth Avenue called Soundscape. And you know when all these Cubans started moving up to New York and also with the Mariel boatlift, there was a big influx of Cuban musicians. Not only Paquito [D'Rivera, with whom Camilo worked], but Ignacio Berroa, and Daniel Ponce. We used to do these big jams every Thursday night. They became very big in New York, kind of an underground thing."
Like the storied days of Spanish Harlem, a saffron-flavored Latin buzz lingered in the air. "Mario Bauza," Camilo says affectionately, "he was the big guru to all of us. And there were influences from all over, because you know there were a lot of Puerto Ricans A Hilton Ruiz, Jerry Gonzales, Andy Gonzales, and Dave Valentin. There was a big commingling of cultural influences."
Many people don't realize just how varied Latin and Caribbean music is, says Camilo. "The big problem is when people think that the Caribbean sound is only salsa. I believe there is an amazing richness of rhythms." If Camilo seems preoccupied with rhythm, it's largely because of the music he grew up with and partly because of a stint as a percussionist for the Dominican National Symphony Orchestra at age sixteen. "That was really good for my touch, for my own sound at the piano," he says, having studied the ivories since the age of nine. "I was able to bring to the piano all the rhythms that I wanted to portray from my homeland and from the Caribbean area."
One of Camilo's biggest influences was Nestor Lecuona, whose legacy of notated music set the standard for incorporating Latin rhythm into pianistics. It was Bauza who turned him onto Lecuona, another debt Camilo attempts to repay the late master with his piano/congo version of "Blue Bauza" (from his first album).
The spontaneous quality and improvisational opportunities of jazz are what prompted Camilo's turn from his classical training. "You always knew what was coming next," he says of classical, notated pieces. "I still play classical. There's so much richness. Why deny that? Also it's great for my musical head as a composer. And also for the hands. Hopefully, some day people will just view it as one more side of jazz."