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Audiences have known local fixture Raul Midon as soulman, singer/songwriter, and Latin balladeer. Some, in a reverential sense, even say he is "a monster." Absent from the live scene of late, Midon is back with a different tone. He would prefer to be called, simply, a jazz singer.
"I love jazz, and I love to swing," Midon declared between numbers at the Baileys Club last February. Radiating through the Raul Midon Trio's set, that sentiment infused the chilly party room at the Sheraton Biscayne Bay hotel with warmth and class. His group has changed from what Midon calls "a high-energy R&B band" to a more subdued but no less swinging jazz format, with Dan Feiszli playing an upright acoustic and Göetz Kujack on a reconfigured drum kit, joining Midon on acoustic guitar. At Baileys the trio alternated handsome instrumental jams with some of Midon's recent vocal compositions. During one highlight percussionist Bobby Thomas (formerly of Weather Report) sat in with the trio. Midon, clad in a dashiki-style shirt, fez, and wraparound sunglasses, joined Thomas on bongos.
An always hospitable vocalist, Midon hooked the audience with his smiling voice and soulful phrasing, fleshing out his intelligent pop-flavored songs with scatting, growls, and soaring trumpet solos. As is usual at his concerts, the uninitiated searched the stage for the trumpet player before realizing Midon was mimicking the brass sounds, making music with his mouth.
Relaxing at his South Miami apartment the next day, Midon is pleased with the gig. After the show he was invited to play the JVC Jazz Festival here in May and was approached backstage by a woman with ties to a major jazz label, encouraging signs that he might successfully steer his career in a new direction. "I would say the most difficult thing has been to focus," Midon admits during a phone conversation. "I come from this diverse background. I grew up with Latin music, got into pop and into the music of really good songwriters, and then I've always been into jazz. But when you get out into the working world of music, you do whatever you can do to make a living. I think I got a little off track; it can become so difficult to plot a path."
One of the city's top session vocalists, Midon makes a good living singing backup on Latin and pop albums with stars such as Alejandro Sanz, Jennifer Lopez, and Julio and Enrique Iglesias. That work, and a short-lived contract with BMG U.S. Latin, seduced the singer into recording a slickly produced album of Spanish-language standards, Gracias a la Vida. Significantly the CD his wife and manager Kathleen brought to sell at the Baileys concert was not this major-label release but rather a live album recorded last year at the Van Dyke Café.
"I got sidetracked with the whole Latin-music thing," Midon explains. "I thought I'll [make the record they want] to get in the door, and the record company will dig what I'll do, and they'll go with me." But Midon and BMG could not come to an agreement about the second album, which the performer wanted to record in a more personal, less commercial style "They just didn't know what to do with me; they didn't know how to get me on the radio," Midon says. "But I don't need to be retooled and shaped by some producer. I have something."
The son of a dancer father from Argentina and an African-American mother from New York, Midon began singing and playing guitar as a child in New Mexico. There he learned the furious flamenco style that is one of his trademarks today. Spending much of his youth outdoors, the songwriter, who has been blind since birth, also came to appreciate the Western landscape that inspires his tunes.
He grew up listening to Carole King, Paul Simon, James Taylor, and Joni Mitchell, and like those of his Seventies role models, his lyrics convey social concerns within disarmingly personal stories. His vocal stylings, however, recall other singers, notably Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Donny Hathaway, and George Benson. His earliest knowledge of Latin music came from hearing tango and Cuban albums in his father's collection. He later studied music at the University of Miami, concentrating on classical and jazz guitar.
"Louis Armstrong said jazz is a mixture of all good music, and that's how I see it," Midon enthuses. "The jazz audience and jazz musicians are open; that's the whole essence of jazz. To me the essential element of jazz is improvisation -- in terms of taking any song that you do and improvising a solo over it or improvising the way you play it with your band. In that sense a Grateful Dead concert can be called jazz."
Midon's conviction about jazz was reinforced this past January, when sax player Paquito D'Rivera invited him to play at a festival in the Uruguayan beach resort Punta del Este. A subsequent trip to New York City solidified a new perspective on his career. Midon would like to move to New York, where he says he might "get to the next level." That will be a loss both to the Latin-music industry and to Miami audiences. He has threatened to leave town before, but this time he says he's determined to make it among musicians of like mind, wherever he may find them.