Paying tribute to Gershwin and being backed by a large orchestra doesn’t detract from Michel Camilo’s spirited performances on the ivories.
After impressing critics and fans alike with a comforting Live at the Blue Note in 2003, and again the following year with Solo, pianist Michel Camilo decided to pay homage to one of the great composers of the early 20th century: George Gershwin. "I'm a big admirer of Gershwin, I always have been," Camilo says in the press notes. "The reason is because he pushed all the boundaries from one music world to another, and he did it with no fear." Camilo recorded this single disc tribute over a few nights at Barcelona's L'Auditori in early February 2005. And he was backed by the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra. Camilo, while certainly pulling his own weight on the album, has helped his cause with the support behind him.
One of the bigger problems facing such a recording is how to capture the élan and verve Gershwin’s work brought within the rather sturdy and stoic confines of a huge orchestra. Nonetheless, Camilo bores headlong into the opening number and title track. While the style initially is that of a rather large jazz band, Camilo is able to forge ahead while the strings bring a certain tension to the work. Working his fingers quickly prior to the somewhat bombastic intro, Camilo warms up and then takes no prisoners, letting the music flow quickly and precisely. Weaving his way through the song, Camilo has the deftness and the natural talent to make this song dance and swing, with the orchestra basically adding the polish to this shiny effort. Perhaps one of the odder flourishes is seeing Camilo finish his playing before the orchestra takes the song to almost cinematic, John Williams-like heights. And then it reverts to his soft-as-silk, and rather swinging, piano playing.
The orchestra's biggest asset is in sounding not stuffy, but just as lively as Gershwin's work demands. Camilo is also able to bring a bit of ragtime into the proceedings, albeit briefly. It seems as if he had been watching an unreleased Chaplin flick and used that as his muse, with various twists and turns throughout, tapping into different emotions. The signature notes come across about two-thirds into the song, before Camilo takes full control, showing his mastery of the keys time and time again. From there, Camilo goes into Gershwin's "Concerto in F", beginning with "Allegro", another lengthy piece that winds from a simple and elegant, happy affair into something challenging and intricate, building in intensity from time to time, but never quite going over the top. Camilo performs several portions of this song with a passion and drive that is hard to equal, before the full brunt of the orchestra chimes in.
Camilo is able to bring out the softer, slower side of Gershwin's songs with the faster, high tempo areas equally well, never making them rub each other the wrong way, but fitting very nicely without any bumps or hiccups. The song's highlight has to be roughly eight minutes in, when a series of cinematic fills gives way to a jazzy, finger-snapping and head-bobbing piece of piano. The second segment is "Adagio—Andante Con Moto", a somber, sullen, slow and soulful song. The orchestra seems to play a backseat to Camilo here, as he delivers one fine series of ivory tickles after another. It's also some of the most enjoyable moments on the album. The lone song that doesn’t quite work, or has the fingerprints of the orchestra over it more than it should, is "Allegro Agitato". Despite some frantic playing by Camilo, it just comes off as far too busy and orchestral.
Fortunately, Camilo redeems himself and the late Gershwin with "Prelude No. 2", the dark and mysterious closing number. Basically left to himself, the pianist breezes through this song and creates a sparse but engaging coda to the album. Camilo might not reach the acclaim of the person he has paid tribute to here, but he has done nothing to diminish just how pleasing his playing is on the ears. Even with 95 musicians behind him.