Michel Camilo’s latest is a triple treat

Boston Globe, September 14, 2007

One of the most complete jazz pianists around and also one of the most engaging, Michel Camilo has spent the past few years working outside the trio format that has been the anchor of his three-decade career. Now, the Dominican-born virtuoso is returning to the trio re-energized by his recent solo, flamenco, and orchestral projects. The results include a concise and compelling trio album, “Spirit of the Moment,” released this year on the Telarc label, and a tour that visits Regattabar for a three-night engagement next week.

Camilo has won a Grammy and two Latin Grammy awards, accolades that speak to both the accessible appeal of his work and the recognition he’s earned in both straight-ahead and Latin jazz worlds. He was classically trained in the Dominican Republic before establishing himself in New York in the ’70s, so trespassing those genre boundaries is something that he has come to do naturally.

“Latino musicians of my generation, we don’t want to be tagged with one label,” Camilo says on the phone from Los Angeles, where he’s rehearsing Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with the LA Philharmonic. “We want to be part of the tradition, part of that big tree that is evolving.”

The careful structure of the new album reveals Camilo as jazz enthusiast, scholar, and innovator. It begins with four originals played with verve: the opener “Just Now” is a modified blues on which Camilo lavishes percussive technique, and the ballad “My Secret Place” is underpinned by a question-mark caginess. The second chapter takes on canonical works like Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti” and John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” which gets a two-minute deconstruction where the original melody appears only at the end. The third chapter returns to originals with more open, experimental treatments.

“The whole idea subliminally is body, mind, and soul,” Camilo says. “The first part is more muscular. The second is the mindset of taking each standard and giving it our personal approach. The last part is more abstract. My albums tell a story: It has to be architecturally harmonic, to have an inner architecture that lets it flow.”

The flow is important to Camilo. He likes to produce quickly; in keeping with its title, “Spirit of the Moment” was recorded directly to master tape. Camilo says his current unit, with veteran Charles Flores on bass and new member Dafnis Prieto on drums, is particularly suited to this approach.

“This new unit is highly improvisatory,” Camilo says. “So I try to convey that connected improvisation feeling in the album, that immediacy that happens as you improvise. Even though I wrote a lot of charts, I kept it highly free.”

At 53, Camilo speaks of this stage of his career as a renewal. Since his last trio outing, the double album “Live at the Blue Note” in 2003, which he describes as a summation of his work until then, he has enjoyed collaborating with flamenco guitarist Tomatito as well as working on Gershwin’s music. “I always feel very close to Gershwin,” he says. “He broke all the boundaries.”

Outside his own music, Camilo has been supporting young Dominican jazz musicians. From 2003 to 2005, he was a visiting professor at Berklee College of Music; the college now awards a Michel Camilo Scholarship, with five recipients thus far. “We had 30 finalists,” he says of a trip to the Dominican Republic to audition applicants. “It was a revelation to me. I didn’t know there was so much talent!”

It’s “a dream come true,” he says, to be able to nurture this talent through the scholarship or a master class he and his trio recently gave in Santo Domingo. He was impressed by the students’ urge to learn straight-ahead technique: “how to improvise, how to develop their swinging chops, how to approach the changes.”

In their hunger, he says, he recognized what caused him to migrate to New York and become a professional jazz musician in the first place. “For sure, it was like looking at myself in the mirror,” he says. “It brought me back for sure. All the way!”