Solo Flight

How do you take an over-active musical imagination and focus it on a solo piano performance? Michel Camilo finds out.
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“It’s a tradition in jazz piano that at some point you must master the solo piano language,” says Latin-jazz giant Michel Camilo. Known for his burning grooves, preternatural keyboard technique, and explosive trio work, Michel decided to cut out the musical middlemen on his most recent project and go it alone. The result is Solo (Telarc Jazz), a deep, beautifully-executed disc filled with masterful arrangements of standards and original tunes. Given the power and depth of Michel’s work, it’s hard to believe that it’s all the result of one man and a piano.

After winning Grammy gold in 2004 with Live at the Blue Note, Michel decided it was time to try flying solo. “For the last 20 years, I experimented with my trio sound,” he says. “Why not then jump without a net and go deep into the solo piano language?” Going mano a mano with an audience gives Michel new levels of artistic freedom. “The sky’s the limit, because you have so many liberties you can take. You don’t have to worry about your rhythm section guys. Nobody’s going to scream at you if you rush or lay back.” With that freedom also comes new challenges. “You have to be careful that the point is made and that you stay focused, so it doesn’t sound like noodling. Stay in that mood. Don’t lose your parameters and don’t lose the groove.”

Before he gets to that point, though, Michel finds it necessary to first go deep within oneself. “What is it that you want to say with the song?” he asks. “What’s the angle you want to play? You must take command, so that at the end of your concert, your audience feels like they’ve gone through a journey with you.”

Helping Michel hone his work is a healthy habit of self-analysis, as well as the input of an invaluable third-party. “My wife Sandra is my manager and my toughest critic,” he reveals. “She takes notes at every concert and puts a strong grade on what’s going on — this happened, this didn’t. It’s a process of self-discovery, being a jazz musician and composer. You always want to keep developing. I hope that never ends. It’s that discovery that makes it fun and exciting.”

Declaration of Independence

Michel’s trio albums are studies in creative power and positive energy, and translating that vibe into solo work may seem daunting. Michel’s more than up to it, though, and if solo piano wizardry is an ambition of yours (and why wouldn’t it be?), here are a few tips from the master. “The most important thing is total independence of the hands,” says Michel. “The only way to achieve it is to practice where your right hand is completely independent from your left. Within that, each hand must have its own independence within itself. With proper shedding, a single hand can provide multiple musical elements at the same time — perhaps melody and chordal accompaniment, or rhythmic hits plus chromatic runs. It’s all possible,” says Michel.

Independence of the hands and fingers is key to the solo language, since it allows a performer to maintain a groove worthy of a tight rhythm section — and replicate the energy and fullness, as well. “Practice grooves with a metronome, so you can know if it’s happening or not,” advises Michel. “Find a way to make it sound complete without drums and bass: Be the rhythm section. At the same time, play solos and accompany over that. Try using half of your hand for your melodies. Have you ever tried to play a scale with just two fingers? Most of the runs you do are with fingers 1, 2, and 3.”

Total independence may be an ambitious goal, but the journey can be just as satisfying as the destination. “Practicing is boring sometimes,” Michel admits. “But if you do it with the metronome, you can play all sorts of games with yourself. Place the metronome on the backbeats. See how much your time is honed, how much you rush or lay back. When you practice a scale, play it backwards. Put the accent on the wrong places. That’s how you challenge yourself. Don’t stay in safe territory.

“Practice with the lights off,” Michel continues. “Total darkness. Don’t look at the keyboard. Feel it. Each finger is an eye.” Persistence is vital to effective practicing. “If something doesn’t happen the way you like it to happen, that doesn’t mean it’s unplayable. Most pianists give up too soon. You’ll be able to play it if you put enough time into it. You can do quantum leaps if you do the right exercises.”

While you’re honing your solo piano P’s and Q’s, don’t forget that you always need something to say. “Don’t lose track of your mood,” Michel advises. “The technique is only a tool to express yourself. Sometimes my students ask me, how do you play so fast? That’s the wrong goal. Are you playing in the mood you set yourself to play? Are you in full command of your instrument? Are you getting the tone you like? If you’re creating a sad mood, is it the saddest mood you can play? If you want your audience to get goose-bumps through your harmonization, that’s what’s important. Are you able to be lyrical? Are you able to make people’s hearts race? Can you make them cry? Music is the inner, secret language of the soul. Make the audience feel. Make them vibrate. I want to connect with everybody.”

Michel Unplugged

“I’m into playing solo concerts totally acoustic — no amplification, if the hall and instrument permit,” says Michel. “It’s more challenging for me because I have to put out much more. At the same time, it’s very revealing for the audience to hear jazz in a truly acoustic way.”

Michel finds that large venues call for a high level of sonic sensitivity and technical savvy. “It’s a spiritual journey to play a concert like that. You discover so much about yourself and how you really create textures with the instrument. You don’t let yourself be fooled by more volume. You want more volume or colors? You make them yourself.”

Stamina is also key. “You really have to be in control of your sound, your technique, and your ideas so you don’t die in the middle of the concert,” says Michel. “It’s very, very physical.” To prepare for his solo shows — many of which consist of multiple sets and last over two hours — Michel does his homework religiously. “I practice non-stop, a minimum of four hours a day.”

Handling Standards

Michel tackles a number of jazz classics on Solo and brings a fresh vibe to each. Particularly noteworthy are a grooving “Our Love is Here to Stay” and a tango-infused “’Round Midnight.” When a song’s already been played thousands of times by just as many musicians, how can you still make it your own?

“You can always play [a standard] the way the composer played it,” he says. “But why not take it a step further and find something that you can contribute to the tradition of that song? It’s like a sponge: I soak [the song] in and then, when it comes out, it becomes something that I wrote, in a way.”

“Don’t be shy,” he continues. “Let yourself go, and take notes of what you come up with. Have some kind of fantasy. Arranging isn’t too far from composition. I would compare it to a camera shutter and how it opens. You start with one pixel, one little idea. The more you open, the more you see. One idea will logically take you to the next as long as you don’t block it. And at the end, if you don’t like it, you can throw it in the garbage.”

“We all have an inner voice. It takes years to find it, but that’s the beauty. And it’s better you don’t find it completely; at least that way, you stay fresh. That’s the way I compose. The song will dictate to you; you don’t dictate the song. The mood will tell you what’s next and you’re just discovering it. It’s all there.”

Though known to the world as a jazz master, Michel isn’t afraid to stylistically shake things up on Solo. The track “Un Son,” for example, features power chords and a four-on-the-floor rock aesthetic. “I’m a big admirer of Elton John and Billy Joel,” says Michel. “They rock at the piano; there was a time when I studied both of them. I’m very much into Dr. John as well.”

Where many pianists might shy away from rock voicings (the root and fifth of a chord? Gasp!), Michel embraces the style wholeheartedly. “It’s all good. I always follow what Duke Ellington said: There are two types of music — good and bad. Music is music; you just have to find the top guys in each style and try to understand what they’re doing. Each style has its own meaning and I’m very open-minded about it.

“I like those power chords,” he continues. “I thought the song called for that approach. You just have to do it judiciously. Tasty!” [Laughs.]