Michel Camilo, Who Returned to His Latin-Flavored Jazz Roots When He Left Santo Domingo

updated 06/05/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/05/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The crowd at Mikell's, a Manhattan jazz club, was bleary-eyed and fidgety as the Michel Camilo trio took the stage on a recent drizzly Friday night. Then lightning struck. Song after song, Camilo flew through complex chord changes at blistering speed, lighting up the room with energy and bringing thunderclaps of applause. Backstage afterward, the pianist was radiant. "When people come to hear me play, I want them to forget their troubles," he said. "For me music must have joie de vivre."

Camilo, 35, is bursting with joy these days. His first American album, Michel Camilo, is the surprise hit of the year and topped Billboard's jazz charts for seven straight weeks. Camilo himself, a native of the Dominican Republic who has been in the U.S. a decade, has set the jazz world abuzz with his virtuosity. "Michel plays with tremendous fire," says pianist Ben Sidran, who performed a duet with Camilo on MTV's VH-1 New Visions show. "He uses the entire keyboard like an orchestral palette in the grand tradition of Art Tatum."

Dance rhythms from the Caribbean give Camilo's jazz its special, supercharged quality. Weaned on merengue music in Santo Domingo, he grew up in a lively family that included one brother, three sisters, nine aunts and uncles and about 40 cousins. "Every time we got together, it was a big party," he recalls. Camilo was only 4 years old when he startled his father, Benigno, a pharmacist, and his mother, Lydia, by playing "Happy Birthday" on an old accordion he had found. At 9, he took his first lessons, in classical piano. "We didn't have a piano at home during my first year," he says, "so I drew a keyboard on a large piece of cardboard to practice my fingering." He became the youngest member of the Dominican Republic's National Symphony at 16, then, after hearing a scratchy recording of Tatum playing "Tea for Two" on the radio, discovered a new passion. "Jazz is freedom music," he says. "I fell in love with the extended possibilities it offered to express my feelings."

In 1973 American percussionist Gordon Gottlieb befriended Camilo while working as a guest performer with the National Symphony, and that summer he stretched Camilo's horizons by showing him the Manhattan nightclub scene. "Michel is a guy who thinks fast, plays fast and needs to be in a place where he can move fast," says Gottlieb. "In Santo Domingo he was frustrated because everything was mañana, mañana. He was made for New York."

Ultimately, Camilo had little choice but to go; he simply couldn't find an audience for jazz in Santo Domingo. "Whenever I'd get up on the bandstand," he says, "people would shout, 'Play a merengue!' " Fortunately his wife, Sandra Pena, a child psychologist, believed in his dream. After watching Camilo struggle for recognition during the first five years of their marriage, she gave up a tenured university position in 1979 to work as a reservations agent for Dominica Airlines in New York. Camilo was allowed to tag along as her dependent, though he had to wait 18 months to get his own working papers. "Michel said, 'There is no turning back—we'll make it,' " she says. "I've never seen him down for more than five minutes."

Ironically, exposure to other Latin musicians in New York led Camilo back to his musical roots. "In the Dominican Republic, I was on a little island looking to America for inspiration," he says. "But when I got here and started thinking about what original contribution I could make to jazz, I discovered it was deep inside myself." Three years with Cuban expatriate saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera put even more fire in Camilo's rhythms. His reputation as a composer grew when Manhattan Transfer won a 1983 Grammy with his joyous "Why Not!"

In constant demand now, especially in Europe, Camilo tours six months of the year with his trio, and Sandra acts as his manager. Before each show he luxuriates in a bubble bath to loosen his muscles. Then, invariably, he bounds onstage wearing an ear-to-ear grin. "I believe in having fun," he says. "The day I stop having fun is the day I will stop making music."

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