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."
Sure, every trumpeter uses his mouth, but Midon doesn't even use a trumpet. Onlookers smile in amazement when they hear the sound of a horn coming from Midon's lips. He says his inspiration for this aural trick was near at hand: "I heard this record on the radio by Pete Minger, a horn player who lives here. I heard that sound and really liked it. And I just started doing it, and kept working on it, so that it's like a real instrument, not just a gimmick."
A pseudo-trumpet is only part of Midon's repertoire. He started playing guitar seriously while taking flamenco lessons at age eleven, then went on to master classical guitar, as well as jazz, blues, rock, boleros, and Argentine folk music. Today, after having played many different genres, Midon says his greatest influence on his guitar work is the fairly obscure jazzist Lenny Breau, who broke new ground with finger-picking techniques.
Midon has incorporated those influences into his trio, which has had the same lineup for more than two years. But because of studio work, Midon has cut back his performing schedule lately to mainly Jazid, Van Dyke Cafe, and occasionally Tobacco Road. Yet as recently as eight months ago the Raul Midon Trio wasn't consistently wowing packed South Beach and Miami nightspots. Before Midon went on vacation to Los Angeles last Thanksgiving, the trio was playing regularly to minuscule, sometimes nonexistent crowds at the Chart House restaurant in Coconut Grove. While on vacation Midon arranged a show at the respected Luna Park restaurant and nightclub. He called friends and old acquaintances in Los Angeles, most of whom he had met at the University of Miami, and asked them to check out his impromptu gig. They did, and so did a lot of other people. Midon describes the night as one of the most powerful shows he's ever performed. He left the next day, charged up from the experience and ready to move to L.A.
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But soon after his return to Miami, Midon received a call from Pablo Manavello, a long-time acquaintance and A&R director at BMG U.S. Latin, a call that eventually led to a record deal. Then in December Midon sat in at a place he had always wanted to play, the Van Dyke Cafe. Don Wilner, musical director of the cafe, was the bassist that night and says he was "blown away, totally blown away," that the gifted 31-year old guitarist is "capable of scatting unlike anyone else I've been with down here." This is old news to some, but the newly turned-on crowd at the Van Dyke keeps Raul coming back on a fairly regular basis. And for the past few months the Raul Midon Trio has jammed on and off at Jazid. Michelle McKinnon books the bands at the candlelit Washington Avenue lair and says people ask for him and come back to see him.
So despite a possibly better-paying career in Los Angeles, Midon is staying in South Florida for the time being, which, according to Mittenthal, is fairly predictable behavior. "Raul was not one of these guys who were trying to gig all time. He's very serious and always had a vision. He never wanted to take a gig for a buck; he always thought about the creative side of it."
The Raul Midon Trio performs at 10:30 p.m. Thursday, September 3, at Jazid, 1342 Washington Ave, Miami Beach; 305-673-9372. Admission is free.