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Music Review: Michel Camilo – What’s Up?

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First, there was John Medeski’s A Different Time, then there was Billy Lester’s Storytime, and now comes Michel Camilo with What’s Up?, the third in a trio of excellent solo piano jazz albums I’ve reviewed in the past few weeks. A Grammy, Emmy and Latin Grammy Award-winning pianist and composer, Camilo has put together a varied collection of seven original compositions as well as four Latin and jazz standards that highlight the breadth of his range on the instrument. As the pianist explains: “This recording expresses my desire to explore the contrasts of color, harmonic texture, rhythm, and nuances of jazz piano playing. Here is my love for the many musical influences I have been exposed to over the years.”

Whether he is revisiting his Afro-Caribbean roots in tunes like Compay Segundo’s “Chan Chan” and his own “Island Beat” or presenting his “take on the perpetual polyrhythmic intricacies” of Paul Desmond’s classic “Take Five,” he is taking up what he calls the biggest challenge for any jazz pianist, “to contribute to the rich tradition of solo piano styles.” It is this mosaic of different styles all developed with consummate virtuosity which is the hallmark of the album.

From the upbeat title song which begins the set with an energetic boogie vibe to the final contemplative coda, “At Dawn,” the focus is on stylistic variety. A Camilo original like “A Place in Time” has a darker tone with roots in the classical nocturne, while “Sandra’s Serenade” plays like a piece that could have come from the pen of a composer like Erik Satie. “On Fire” is a showpiece for the pianist’s flashing fingers as he burns over the keys. It is a pianistic tour de force that will leave you with your mouth hanging open. A classic like “Alone Together” gets a blues treatment, and Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” has a long improvised introduction leading to the familiar melody.

What’s Up? is the second release in Sony Classical’s resurrection of the fabled OKeh jazz label which is focusing on what they call “Global Expressions in Jazz.” While it is Camilo’s first effort for OKeh, it does mark the pianist’s return to the Sony Music family where he had previously recorded for Portrait, Epic, and Columbia.

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