By Jacob Katel
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Raul Midon has some less-than-surprising observations about life as a musician in South Florida and ways to improve that life. "I was going to move to L.A.," he admits. "I was like, 'I've had it here. I have a good scene here, but I've got to get where there's more music appreciation. And where there's more of a possibility for a bigger career.' L.A. has more possibilities."
Grousing like that is common among South Florida musicians, frustrated with their limited success. But Midon isn't your average South Florida musician; he's a seasoned, versatile artist whose prowess on the acoustic guitar is almost as great as that of his dexterous vocals. And unlike some of his grumbling contemporaries, Midon actually has a good reason to stick around, namely a one-record deal with BMG U.S. Latin, with an option for a second album. Although Midon's frequent live gigs with his eponymous trio consist primarily of jazz- and blues-influenced tunes sung in English, he is a sought-after studio vocalist in the Latin music community. The tunes on his forthcoming disc, Mi Alma Latina (My Latin Soul), to be released within a year, will be produced by Rudy Perez and will feature songs indigenous to various Latin American countries. Some of the songs that will be included are a couple that Argentine singer Mercedes Sosa put on the map, including "Alfonsina y Mar" from her home country, and "Gracias a la Vida" from Chile, as well as Puerto Rican vocalist Danny Rivera's "Madrigal."
Although Midon earns his bread and butter as a session singer with artists such as Julio Iglesias, Roberto Perera, and Ricardo Montaner, his real love is the rootsy jazz and blues stuff he plays with his trio. Midon first met bassist Shernol Mathias at the University of Miami School of Music. He hooked up with drummer Gstz Kujack while he was in a classic-rock cover band performing a dues-paying gig at Bayside Marketplace in the early Nineties. Gstz notes that Midon looked pretty wild back then, with long hair, a beard, and prodigious fingernails used to pluck his guitar strings. These days Midon still has the nails, but he looks like a relaxed, regular guy with a slight paunch, trademark wraparound sunglasses (he's been blind since birth), and a slightly receding hairline.
During a recent gig at Jazid on South Beach, club owner Cesare Mazzoli enthusiastically describes Midon as "a fucking monster," not because of his personality or appearance but because of the way Midon is all over a song by the time he's done with it. He has a particular mindset when performing with the trio: "I think my goal is to just go for stuff. Sometimes it comes out, and sometimes it doesn't. I feel comfortable enough to just go for stuff, and because of that incredible things happen. It's pretty magical."
Whether he's performing one of his self-penned tunes such as the jazz-poppy "Believe in Me" or the bluesy "Money Buys Happiness," or one of his standard covers (which range from Traffic's "Feelin' Alright" to John Coltrane's "Giant Steps"), by the end of the song Midon is possessed. He becomes so engrossed with the music he'll almost fall off his chair while weaving back and forth in time, then lunge forward and hit the mike singing without missing a beat. Midon's gateway to his musical rapture is generally a series of awe-inspiring improvisational jams and scats, featuring an intertwined melange of single-note guitar licks and wordless vocal melodies that leave you wondering where his guitar ends and voice begins.
His righthand techniques are born of flamenco picking, which he learned as a child in New Mexico. On his faster songs Midon's hand, with inchlong acrylic nails on the middle three fingers, flutters quickly as he keeps time, hits his groove, then plucks his strings. The hand becomes a blur.
But according to Midon, when you see him perform you're not seeing a prodigy now grown up, or a man who has cashed in on a musical gift he received in exchange for his eyesight. You're seeing an artist who has worked hard to refine his craft. He has gigged around South Florida more than six years since graduating from the music program at the University of Miami, and he still practices at least three hours per day. Midon notes that the concept of a blind person having a keener musical ear than sighted people is a myth, and that some of the best musicians he knows can see. But the sensation Midon sometimes gets from playing transcends all things in the visible world. "At the risk of sounding new-agey," Midon says about his intense performances, "it feels like you're coming out of your body. People have said this and it's true: It feels like the music is playing you. Some nights you fight the music and some nights you don't, and that's when it's right."
One person that's seen Midon do it right many times is Steve Mittenthal, owner of Tropics Entertainment booking agency. Mittenthal has worked with him since the early Nineties, when Midon was in his first two bands, Look Around and Dos Almas. "I'm one of his biggest fans," Mittenthal says, "and I have a job where you're not supposed to be a fan. He is absolutely brilliant. I can listen to him all week long. Raul is so talented and special. He does so many things so well. He 'plays' the trumpet better than a lot of other trumpet players in town, and he just plays his mouth."