Michel Camilo’s Mano a Mano – One of the Year’s Best
It wouldn’t be fair to let the year go by without mentioning Michel Camilo’s elegant, urbane, soulful Spanish Caribbean jazz trio album Mano a Mano: after all, our “best jazz albums” list is coming up and this will be on it. It’s an intimate performance, the Dominican pianist with his longtime bandmate Charles Flores on bass and Giovanni Hidalgo on congas. Camilo’s been an interesting player for a long time, a classical concert pianist with roots in Afro-Cuban music and equal virtuosity in the American jazz songbook. How he blends these genres here is just as emotionally impactful as it is cerebral – and subtle. In a lot of ways, it’s a clinic in restraint and making notes count, exemplified by a brightly straightforward cover of Trane’s Naima; the other cover here, Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder is a lot more syncretic, done as bachata jazz with Camilo bringing in a little Professor Longhair before Hidalgo exercises his own remarkable restraint on the smaller set of drums that Camilo talked him into using on this session to enhance the up-close ambience.
The opening track, Yes, coalesces gradually but matter-of-factly, Camilo’s spacious block chords mingling with Hidalgo’s insistent breaks. The real stunner here is Then and Now, a beautiful, intense, slow bolero featuring a plaintive bowed bass solo over the first verse, Camilo echoing Satie and playing major on minor for all it’s worth with an eerie glimmer. Camilo also gives the Cuban standard Alfonsina y El Mar a similarly intense, brooding treatment, winding out with a judiciously chromatic iciness. By contrast, the title track is a scurrying, cascading, Monty Alexander-ish romp with a nimbly pointillistic solo by Flores. There’s also You and Me, pop ballad with bite and a slinky Cuban groove; Rice and Beans, which welds Oscar Peterson purist bluesiness to a graceful Cuban dance vamp; and No Left Turn, which serves as sort of a reprise. Camilo covers an awful lot of ground here, from hypnotic salsa grooves to poignant melodicism, with a dash of knotty postbop improvisation and makes it all seem as if it was all meant to fit together in the first place.
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