Album Review – Michel Camilo – What’s Up?

The following review first appeared in the August 2013 issue of Eric Nemeyer’s Jazz Inside Magazine

Michel Camilo

Michel Camilo - What's Up?

WHAT’S UP? – OKeh Records 88883703992 What’s Up?; A Place in Time; Take Five; Sandra’s Serenade; Island Beat; Alone Together; Paprika; Love For Sale; Chan Chan; On Fire; At Dawn

PERSONNEL: Michel Camilo, piano

By Curtis Davenport

The biggest surprise to me when I began researching to review this disc was that I discovered that this is only Michel Camilo’s second solo piano album. I had assumed that someone with Mr. Camilo’s technical prowess would have gone solo a few more times over the course of his 25-plus year career. But in fact, What’s Up? is number two, the other being 2005’s appropriately titled, Solo. Solo, though technically striking, was perhaps overly reverential and introspective; so much so that parts of the album took on a certain sameness. The same cannot be said of What’s Up? which crackles with percussive energy and invention from beginning to end.

The Dominican pianist is determined to show all sides of his musical personality on this album from Latin to Bop to Classical with many stops in between. Though he is known mostly for his trio work, he seems a bit freer in this setting. The fact that there is no bassist to clash with has loosed him to do more creative things with his left hand and much of it is very impressive.

The album kicks off with a bit of a surprise – the title track, a lively boogie-woogie/stride tune written by Mr. Camilo. His left is rock solid, the melody is infectious and he sounds right at home in this idiom. Equally exciting is his version of Paul Desmond’s “Take Five”, which he plays straight and very impressively, keeping that timeless 5/4 rhythm while flowing with loads of creative ideas from his right hand. The quasi-classical “A Place in Time” is just begging to be scored for strings, I can hear in my mind an orchestra caressing the quiet passages and exploding on the crescendos. As beautiful as that composition is, the best moments on the album come when Mr. Camilo gets to show off his rhythmic prowess, whether it’s an original or a cover. “Island Beat” is more Cuba than Jamaica with Camilo managing to make us feel the missing timbales. “Alone Together” manages to be grandiose and intimately bluesy all at once. “Paprika” is a powerful joy with rumbling left hand voicings that virtually leap from the piano. He takes “Love for Sale” to places that it has probably never been, with knotty, shifting time signatures and once again, stunning left hand work.

Then there’s “Chan Chan”, originally composed and performed by the incomparable Cuban guitarist/vocalist Compay Segundo and made famous by its appearance in the film Buena Vista Social Club. It’s a stunningly beautiful song to begin with and Camilo treats it with the grandeur that it deserves, starting subtly and letting the performance grow in power, chorus after chorus, while pulling jazz elements that the song didn’t have before, in with his right hand improvisations. It’s a towering performance that improves on an already great composition. The album comes to a fitting conclusion with the evocative “At Dawn”, which features Camilo at his most lyrical.

I’m usually not a fan of solo piano but Michel Camilo’s work on What’s Up? has made me reconsider. As much as I enjoy his duo and trio work, I would relish hearing more solo piano from him if it continues to be of this caliber.


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