Concert review and thoughts about Jazz: Michel Camilo keeps Jazzzzzzzzzz alivvvvvvvvve!!!

Venue: Highline Ballroom (NY)
Date: June 27, 2012.

Text by Sohrab Saadat Ladjevardi

Is jazz “really” dead? In 1975, when an angry, bitter and maybe exaggerating Miles Davis declared “Jazz is dead (it’s) the music of a museum,” I felt the same — especially when Fusion jazz and later Smooth jazz became very popular and very commercial, thus changing jazz into elevator and background music. Jazz became music that was “easy” to listen to and very accessible. Bored of that kind of music my interest went to American free jazz and to international jazz, such as European, Asian, African and Latin jazz.

As a jazz lover, I can say that this music has become stagnant, especially over the last twenty years. There’s no shortage of talented musicians out there, but jazz in America has gone decades without producing an artist capable of reinventing the genre the way Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, my mentor Ornette Coleman and many others did.

Even musicians like Wynton Marsalis, who tries in collaboration with Jazz at Lincoln Center to preserve jazz and its tradition by “teaching and reminding” the public what jazz was and is about, don’t have much impact in bringing out the next generation of creative musicians…the next leaders of a new jazz movement.

But being myself a musician and playing the saxophone, which represents jazz, I don’t agree with Miles’ quote today. Instead of proclaiming “Jazz is dead,” I’m asking you: Can jazz as an art form be saved?

My answer is “yes!” It’s been already saved by many immigrant musicians, composers and music producers and by the international jazz community. In this post I don’t want to define what jazz “is” or “means.” Instead I want to proclaim that this music’s still happening! And there are still enough committed old and young musicians around us who are capable of conveying that to us on an individual level.

One of these musicians, and a savior of jazz, is the Dominican pianist and composer Michel Camilo, whose show I attended at Highline Ballroom on June 27, 2012.
The first time I saw him playing with his trio (Anthony Jackson on electric bass and “El Negro” Horacio Hernandez on drums) was in the music documentary film Calle 54 (2001) where they perform “From Within.”

The first time I met him was at MICHIKO STUDIOS, when I worked there as a studio manager. A couple of times he invited me to watch his rehearsals. What a treat! And the first time I saw his trio live (with Lincoln Goines on bass and Cliff Almond on drums) was at the Highline Ballroom a month ago.

Honestly, for many years I have never been into piano jazz trio music because, simply, there have been no pianists around who could excite me. But this changed with Camilo. He pulled my interest back into the piano and opened my ears for piano sounds that I haven’t heard before. His musical input as a composer and pianist refreshed and renewed the contents and image of jazz for me. (Generally speaking Latin music has contributed so much to jazz, so to re-install Latin Jazz as a category in the Grammy’s is correct and undeniable!).

In his playing and composing, Camilo integrates all elements of jazz in a new and personal way. He is a pianist with brilliant technique and a composer who fuses Caribbean rhythms and jazz harmonies. His artistry and virtuosity bridge the genres of jazz, classical, popular, and world music.
Please watch the video below in which Camilo and his trio perform “On Fire”. From the intro to the end, Camilo plays “jazz”. Especially in the intro and in the improvisation, he demonstrates how strong the mental and physical aspects of improvising are. His mind is able to concentrate on many things simultaneously, such as chord-scale structures, motif development, form, intensity level, absorption and use of musical ideas heard in the accompaniment, rhythmic levels and feelings. It’s just lovely to watch, how the piano and the drums are in sync. His music becomes so physical that the audience has to go with it. I really saw the audience moving in their chairs. Like in a tennis game. See for yourself how Camilo jumped out of his seat after playing his last chord!!!

Camilo isn’t just a musician on stage but also a great entertainer, entertaining the audience and also himself with music that is very original and performed very emotionally. In his playing you can feel his passion towards music, which he shares with his band members and the audience at the same time. He’s a great leader, too. With his charisma and will power he’s able to take his players with him, wherever he wants to go. The musical grammar of jazz helps Camilo to bloom as a musician. And Camilo, being grateful, gives jazz a new color and a new image. He proves that today’s jazz is still about individualism and freedom of choice. And it has nothing to do with skin color and even gender. There’s is no “one” jazz style. As a matter of fact, jazz has become so diverse that it’s impossible to categorize it — just like it was in the old days. There are thousands of jazz styles because there are thousands of individual jazz players in America and around the world.

The pianist Vijay Iyer said at a music conference panel this year that “Jazz isn’t dead because it gets much private and public funding.” I don’t agree with him and it doesn’t mean that I’m against funding. But I feel musicians or human beings, like Camilo, keep jazz alive and not money. Money doesn’t create anything, but can help to produce creativity if it goes to the “right” source.

Let Camilo, the maestro, speak about himself in the video below!