by Nick Stubblefield
When you’re off to see an artist perform for the fifth time, it’s reasonable to keep your expectations in check. If it’s jazz pianist Michel Camilo and his trio, however, you can bet those expectations will be met and surpassed. The trio burned up the Blue Note NYC this past weekend with another set of tunes from Camilo’s extensive repertoire of original compositions. Camilo’s piano abilities are a well-documented tour de force and his infectious energy is ferocious, so keeping up with Camilo is a bit of an endurance trial. Luckily for the audience, bassist Ricky Rodriguez and percussionist Mark Walker more than held their own on a set that crossed genres and styles but always maintained Camilo’s signature exuberance.
The late-night set kicked off with a tune that epitomizes Camilo’s compositional and playing style — the high-octane “On the Other Hand,” from the album of the same name. The Caribbean-influenced tune sports rapid-fire, physics-defying repeat notes in the right hand while the left hammers a grooving counter-rhythm.
Camilo followed up with “Mongo’s Blues,” a work he dedicated to the late Cuban jazz percussionist Mongo Santamaria. A punctuated, syncopated ostinato in the left hand and a restrained, bluesy melody open the number, then the piece’s dynamics and rhythmic entropy intensify to the bursting point, then give way to a thunderous drum break from the polished percussionist Mark Walker.
Camilo certainly wows his audience with his technical command and feats of sheer physicality at the piano, but he can just as easily stir the soul with slower, melodic and introspective fare like “Remembrance.” Here, Camilo’s sensitive touch and precise control over phrasing and dynamics revealed his stronger interest in the classical realm — and it turns out Camilo has worked as a conductor of classical music back in his native Santo Domingo.
Other highlights included “Yes,” a heavily Latin-influenced original that showcased some sublime technique from bassist Ricky Rodriguez as he whizzed across the full-range of the standup bass, performing perfectly interlocked melodic lines with the piano. Another personal favorite, “From Within,” from Camilo’s live album Rendezvous, features a lush, improvisational verse that contrasts heavily with a hard-hitting chorus defined by a clanging, crowd-pleasing, cowbell part. Watching fellow audience members provides nearly as much joy as watching Camilo’s trio itself, as dropped-jaws, toothy grins, and bobbing heads were present on nearly everyone in the tightly-packed venue.
Camilo’s ability to segue between modern jazz harmonies, blues, Afro-Cuban melodies and rhythms, and vaguely-classical ballads make him a musical chameleon who seizes his audience’s attention and refuses to let it go. That should be enough to appeal to anyone, and his showmanship, charisma, and warm on-stage personality up his show’s must-see ranking to an absolute essential.