Michel Camilo: Live at the Blue Note

Michel Camilo
Live at the Blue Note

Recorded last March at the famed Blue Note, pianist Michel Camilo has always had a sense of musical adventure. “There’s a very high level of communication, and at the same time, a very high level of risk in all the improvisational moments”, he says in the press kit for this double-CD recording of selections from those evenings. And with Charles Flores on bass and Horacio “El Negro” Hernandez on drums, Camilo is certainly going about the music with a meticulous style that sounds just as much like he’s going on a whim. The 135-minute double-disc effort might be a bit long for some people to last through, but overall, the fun and musicianship Camilo brings to each composition is what makes it so appealing.

Fresh from his Grammy-winning Triangulo album, Camilo starts this recording off with “Cocowalk”, the bouncy and jumping tune that Camilo leads with some simple playing early on. The Cuban rhythm section gives the song its legs, though, particularly with Hernandez accentuating different notes. Camilo ups the ante, though, halfway through the song and then everything is in full gear. There’s a crispness to Camilo’s style that isn’t quite as smooth as Oscar Peterson’s playing, but the same sort of approach can be heard. Toning things down somewhat with “Two of a Kind”, a slower but deliberate jazz tune that has enough space or air within it to keep it ambling along nicely. Only some minor audience noise in the back can be heard, although it might be Camilo and the group calling musical audibles.

“Hello & Goodbye” follows the same flow as “Two of a Kind”, with Camilo taking his leisurely time to set the mood and tone. At times veering just a tad into a classical motif, Camilo brings it back with some basic jazz feel as Hernandez and Flores wait for their turn to jump in. And when they do, they definitely give it a Latin-jazz-meets-tango feeling. The heart of the song picks up nearly two-thirds of the way in, with all three musicians getting a little bit crazy while still maintaining the song’s mood. The danceable finale is by far the highlight. “The Magic in You” is the breather of the first disc, a slow and reflective piece that features Hernandez brushing the skins.

What is most enjoyable about the early tunes is how much flow there is to each one. Eight minutes seems like three, something that is arduous at best to accomplish. But for Camilo it just rolls off the top of his head. Or tips of his fingers! “Tequila” is a different take on the Champs’ legendary instrumental tune, which creates audience appreciation early on. The song’s light-hearted nature is not lost on the trio either, as they pick things up shortly afterward, shouting the title. “Dichotomy” has that be-bop jazz flavor as Camilo sets the mood while the remaining duo punctuate it with Latin overtones. The first disc ends with the lengthy and experimental “This Way Out”, but not before Camilo burns it up with some great solo work on “Blue Bossa”.

Disc two doesn’t lose much momentum, although the smoky bar room opening to “On the Other Hand” thankfully becomes more refined and infectious. You can start doing your impersonation of Bill Cosby’s dancing now! “Thinking of You” is probably the highlight of the second disc, a slow moving jazz staple that has Camilo pacing himself beautifully. It’s the sort of song that would put one to sleep in a good way. “At Night (To Frank)” shows how the band is now in its groove and is far looser sounding than the first disc, hitting everything in just the right places. And “Why Not!” only adds to the album’s luster. Even Camilo can be heard laughing a bit at how well it turns out.

The evening ends with two more tunes that combine to clock in at over 18 minutes. “And Sammy Walked In” isn’t as strong as the rousing “On Fire”, but overall this album is proof that good jazz comes in all shapes and styles.