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Slow burn
The controlled blaze of Michel Camilo
BY BILL KISLIUK

The tuning of a drum is not usually the principal matter on a pianistís mind when he heads for the recording studio. But it is one of the many things pianist Michel Camilo wanted to be perfect when he set to work on last yearís Triangulo (Telarc), which would go on to earn him a Grammy nomination. " I have a very bad reputation, " he admits over the phone from New York. " I demand a lot. " He says that when they were recording Triangulo, " we stopped the tape machine and retuned the drums. I didnít want to hear the wrong overtones rubbing against my melodies. A lot of people think you donít orchestrate for the trio. But I do. Itís about finesse, itís about colors. "

Charged by his Latin jazz background, shaped by an appreciation for nuance that recalls Keith Jarrett, and structured with the meticulous ear of an artist with a background in classical music, Triangulo is both inventive and easy-listening, spirited yet never reckless. These are not always the qualities associated with Latin jazz, where fire is generally seen as a key ingredient. Thereís fire in Camiloís music, but itís not wildfire. Itís more of a controlled blaze. " Iíve made albums that were all out, " he says, referring to his early trio recordings and his work in the 1980s as a sideman for volcanic saxophonist Paquito DíRivera. " But for my collaboration with flamenco guitarist Tomatito, I had to force myself to be very melodic. That experience lasted five years and got me in touch with my romantic side. " Now, he says, his sound is the " sound of maturity. The fire is still there, but just when it has to be. "

Raised in Santo Domingo, Camilo was asked to join the National Symphony in the Dominican Republic in 1970, when he was just 16 years old. The offer was something of a ploy by his piano teacher, who was also an orchestra leader, and who thought it a waste that Camilo had stopped playing to concentrate on medical studies. Camilo moved to New York in 1979 and set about breaking into the club scene while also studying jazz and classical music at Juilliard. Manhattan Transfer won a Grammy in 1983 for its recording of his " Why Not? " ; soon after he joined DíRiveraís sextet.

Over the years, he has become a fixture in the jazz and classical worlds. He has written and recorded piano concertos, film scores, and a big-band disc inspired by his appreciation for the arrangements of the Count Basie Band and Don Sebesky. He was among the talents highlighted in Calle 54, director Fernando Truebaís spirited 2001 valentine to Latin jazz. Later this year he will take part in duets with Cuban pianist Chucho Valdés and saxophonist Joe Lovano in Europe, and heíll perform a piano concerto in Barcelona. But right now, he says, " the trio is my center. "

Heíll bring that trio, with sensational Cuban drummer Horacio " El Negro " Hernández and bassist Charles Flores, to the Regattabar next weekend. Back in March, they recorded a live set that will be released as a two-disc, " live at the Blue Note in Greenwich Village " CD later this year. Camilo wrote a batch of new tunes for the disc, and they hadnít performed them live before the week-long run began. He admits that working out the tunes in front of an audience and a tape machine was " pretty hairy, letís put it that way. I write pretty nuanced charts. We do extended versions of the songs. We get into it and let ourselves go. We want to get that energy out there. " After the first tune of each set, when he introduced the band and let the crowd know he was recording, he says, " they get into this very deep listening mode. We played this new ballad and you could hear a pin drop. "

Heís also just finished a week-long engagement as a guest lecturer at Berklee College of Music, a teaching gig heíll repeat in 2004 and 2005. When teaching, he says, " I focus on finding your own sound. Iím a composer at heart. I tell them how to write music. How I start from an idea, how I throw it in the air, catch it in the air, and it becomes something else. It is so simple that it is very complicated. "

Composing and finding his own voice are themes Camilo returns to again and again. " Itís a never-ending saga. It is the story of my life. "

The Michel Camilo Trio plays the Regattabar, in the Charles Hotel, 1 Bennett Street in Harvard Square, next Friday and Saturday, April 25 and 26. Call (617) 661-5000.

Issue Date: April 17 - 24, 2003
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