Michel Camilo is a legend of extraordinary proportions. Born to a family of musicians in the Dominican Republic, the musical genius composed his first song at just five years old, and by his teens, was recognized as an up and coming jazz artist thanks to his post at a member of the National Symphony Orchestra. The 58-year-old left Santo Domingo to pursue his doctorate at the prestigious Berklee College of Music and now, with several honorary degrees, best-selling albums and industry recognition as the recipient of Grammy and Emmy awards, Camilo is known as one of the genre’s most prolific artists. The pianist and composer has toured the world over (more than once!) but will be performing stateside at the Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival in New York this Saturday. NBC Latino caught up with the inspiring musician before taking the stage at the star-studded festival, who shared why performing this weekend before an eager crowd at the festival will be so special.
You began your professional career at such a young age, sitting down to the piano as just toddler. What lead you to compose your first song before many children are even writing words and to keep that passion to this day?
“I still experience the wonder of that time when I compose – music has been my life since I can remember. I was fortunate to grow up in a family of musicians of all types, both popular and classical. There was never a barrier between on or the other and that has definitely triggered the way I’ve managed my career. Writing at a young age seemed natural, as did getting together with my family to play and sing at gatherings like Christmas. And now, when I go back to the Dominican Republic for those celebrations, I’m proud to see the younger generations of my family continue the tradition of being involved with music.”
You’ve had a successful career that many would be envious of. With so many accomplishments, where are you in your career?
“I’m on my second year touring for my latest album, ‘Mano a Mano.’ It’s been wonderful and will take me through the end of this year. I will be playing throughout New York this week and then I will be heading to Europe where I will play jazz festivals in Portugal, Switzerland, the Netherlands, France and Macedonia. In September, I will tour Venezuela and Colombia and then in October, I will put on a different hat and play five concerts with the Basque National Orchestra. After that, I will be able to release an album that’s currently in production, called ‘Spain Forever.’”
What do you hope to bring to audiences at your performance on Saturday?
“I feel so lucky to meet a different audience every night and share my art and music with them. Those are minutes, hours that are so special. I’m able to tell a story, to communicate and feel together with the audience what it means to be alive. The music I share has the power to make an audience love, feel and enjoy beauty. I tell a story with introspective, deep, soulful moments, and even sorrow and joys. I share the concert, my open book with the audience and it’s a two-way street, from the audience to the stage because they and I both react to the colors, nuances and textures of a song. There’s just one difference between an ordinary musician and an artist; a musician plays notes, while an artist simply plays the message behind them.”
Where do you think the future of jazz is headed and what do you think your contribution has been?
“I believe we’re now living in a second golden era in jazz, the first being in the 40s through the 60s. There’s an incredible renaissance for jazz, with so many festivals worldwide. Major concert halls around the world that were once reserved for classical music are now being used for big jazz concerts and recitals. I’m encouraged by the young people pursuing it. I get so much joy out of teaching my master classes, passing on my love for music. And my contribution? I’d like to think that I’ll be known for breaking barriers, opening the worlds of jazz, classical and Latin music to bring something beautiful to people.”