It’s a decade since Live at the Blue Note the superlative trio album Michel Camilo recorded at the New York club, and where the pianist returns to perform for three nights from Thursday. That release justly went on to win a Grammy for best latin jazz album, but since then even though he’s released a number of albums Camilo, from the Dominican Republic who’s made a highly successful career in the United States since first moving to New York to study in the late-1970s, has dipped from view. That is until now. Returning to Sony but his first for their recently revived OKeh label, solo piano album What’s Up? is pretty special. By the time I got to the beautifully yearning ‘Sandra’s Serenade’ via the New Orleans flavours of the title track, the Jarrett-esque ‘A Place in Time’, and an unstuffy take on the overly familiar ‘Take Five’, I was well and truly hooked. I hear quite a lot of Oscar Peterson in the back story of Camilo’s sound early on here but really these are echoes to muse on, nothing more. Camilo has a lovely bespoke touch and a top-class technique that compares to Monty Alexander’s but it’s more rhapsodic in essence.
When the son flavours really open up on ‘Island Beat’, even though the tune is crying out for congas, Camilo’s left hand compensates completely. It’s not really about volume but register, and the personality he brings to the song sections make them become like characters in a novel and together people What’s Up? It’s pretty joyous at times with rococo flourishes here and there but isn’t at all wearing. Camilo’s approach on ‘Alone Together’, the 1930s Arthur Schwartz / Howard Dietz standard, is a harmonic whodunit, elliptically modern by the end with voicings that would do Jason Moran proud. ‘Paprika’ is really powerful at the beginning of the tune and you can imagine this with a strong drummer really moving the trio along after the opening theme. Other tracks are an understated take on Cole Porter’s ‘Love For Sale’; a banging, wonderfully-timed version of the late Compay Segundo’s classic ‘Chan Chan’, one for the Buena Vista Social Club generation definitely; and two more Camilo originals: ‘On Fire’ a contrafact of Cole Parker’s ‘Too Darn Hot’; and the airy ‘At Dawn’. So, all in all a very welcome return to form by a piano master. Stephen Graham
Michel Camilo top and the album cover above
Released on 13 May. Michel Camilo appears with his trio at Ronnie Scott’s in London prior to release on 10-11 May www.ronniescotts.co.uk