When two musicians with radically different backgrounds come together, there are often concerns about how compatible they will be. The musicians might find that the gap separating them is too wide, or they might find some common ground and develop something that is truly fresh and interesting. Very much an example of the latter, the new Verve release Spain finds Dominican jazz pianist Michel Camilo and Spanish flamenco guitarist Tomatito providing a musical hybrid that is as fresh-sounding as it is unorthodox.
"Tomatito came into my world, and I came into his world," Camilo asserts. "And together, we tried to do something that had not been done before and have some fun with it. Spain is very different from any of my other albums, and it’s very different from any of Tomatito’s albums. The spirit of this record is two musicians trying to develop something new and challenge ourselves. I enjoy the element of surprise."
It’s no exaggeration to say that musically, Camilo and Tomatito come from two very different worlds. Camilo, who grew up in the Dominican Republic but has lived in and around New York since 1979, is a straight-ahead acoustic jazz pianist who incorporates a wide variety of Latin and Caribbean elements and has cited Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, and Art Tatum as some of his main influences. Tomatito, however, lives in his native Spain, where he was born into a family of Gypsies and is recognized as one of the country’s top flamenco guitarists.
But as different as their backgrounds are, Camilo and Tomatito also have a lot in common. Camilo loves flamenco, and Tomatito is a major jazz enthusiast. Both appreciate a variety of Latin music—Camilo’s work, in fact, has underscored his love of Afro-Caribbean music (especially calypso and soca) as well as Spanish flamenco, Afro-Cuban salsa, Dominican merengue, Brazilian samba, and Argentinean tango.
"In Spain," says Camilo, "a critic said that Tomatito and I met each other half way—he departed from Spain, I departed from America, and we met somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic. We kept our roots, and by merging our sounds, we came up with a new sound."
Camilo and Tomatito have known each other since the early 1990s, when they met in Spain at a recording session for the nuevo flamenco group Ketama. They quickly became friends, but didn’t start performing together until 1997, when an organizer for The Barcelona Jazz Festival asked them to perform a duet tribute to the late Spanish hard bop pianist Tete Montoliu.
"What they had in mind was a jazz/flamenco collaboration, and Tomatito and I were both interested," Camilo recalls. "The set was divided into three parts. I would play solo piano, Tomatito would play solo flamenco guitar, and then we would play together as a duo. After that show, Tomatito and I were invited to play together at jazz and flamenco festivals all over Spain—and it wasn’t long before we were playing together in Japan, Switzerland, and Italy as well."
With over 40 concerts performed together by the summer of 1999, a studio album was inevitable. So, in August of that year, they traveled to a studio in Stamford, Connecticut to record Spain. Putting these two instrumentalists together has created an intimate duo that has been an exciting experience for both of them.
Throughout the album, Camilo and Tomatito enjoy an undeniably strong rapport. This is evident on melodic interpretations of Corea’s "Spain" and the Consuelo Velasquez standard "Bésame Mucho" as well as several pieces by Tomatito, including the flamenco rumba "La Vacilona" and the bulería "A Mi Niño José."
"The bulería is one of the foundations of flamenco, and Tomatito wrote that one right after his son was born in 1997," Camilo notes. "Tomatito has six children—the first five were girls, and then José was born. Can you believe that José is only two and a half years old and is already starting to play around on a small guitar?"
Meanwhile, "Aire de Tango" and "Para Troilo y Salgán" were both written by the Argentinean guitarist Luis Salinas. Camilo notes: "Anibal Troila and Horacio Salgán were two legendary tango players from Argentina, and Salinas wrote that song for them. ‘Para Troilo y Salgán’ is a modern Argentinean tango, not a traditional tango."
Throughout his career, Camilo has never been afraid to look all over the world for musical inspiration. Born in Santo Domingo on April 4, 1954, Camilo came from a very musical family and started out playing accordion before switching to the piano at age nine. In 1979, a teenage Camilo moved to New York, and it was in the 1980s that he spent three years as a sideman for Cuban reedsman Paquito D’Rivera.
Camilo made his recording debut as a leader in 1985, when he recorded Why Not? for Japan’s King label. In 1988, he made his American recording debut with the self-titled Michel Camilo for Portrait/Epic. Several more critically acclaimed albums for Epic and Columbia followed, including On Fire, On The Other Hand, Rendezvous, and One More Once. He has been honored with numerous awards, including a GRAMMY® and an Emmy Award. In The All Music Guide to Jazz , critic Scott Yanow describes Camilo as "one of the most stimulating jazz pianists to emerge in the mid-to late 1980s."
Camilo, who studied at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music, also has strong credentials in the classical field. At 16, he was playing with the National Symphony Orchestra of the Dominican Republic; in 1987, the same orchestra invited him to conduct a classical recital that included the works of Beethoven and Dvorak. In fact, some of Camilo’s jazz composing and playing has reflected his interest in classical music—both European and Latin American.
Tomatito, meanwhile, has an equally impressive history. Born José Fernandez Torres in Almería, Spain in 1958, Tomatito is the son of flamenco guitarist Tomate and the nephew of flamenco guitarist Niño Miguel. Coming from such a highly regarded family of Gypsy flamenco musicians, Tomatito learned from the best at an early age and went on to accompany such respected flamenco singers as Pansequito, Enrique Morente, and José Menese. But Tomatito is especially famous for the 18 years he spent accompanying the famous Camarón de la Isla, who was among Spain’s most revered flamenco vocalists of the 20th century. When Camarón died from a heroin overdose at the age of 41 in 1992, there was a feeling of heartbreak throughout Spain. It was a tragic loss that hit flamenco lovers as hard as the murder of John Lennon hit the rock world in 1980—in fact, it’s been said that when Camarón died, a piece of Spain died with him.
Tomatito made his recording debut as a solo artist with 1987’s La Leyenda del Tiempo , and he went on to record other successful solo albums like 1991’s Barrio Negro and 1997’s Guitarra Gitana. Camilo stresses that while flamenco is Tomatito’s specialty, the guitarist—much like himself—is very open-minded and has an eclectic taste in music. That open-mindedness is evident throughout this collaboration, which was released in Spain in March 2000 and has since been among the country’s top-selling albums in both the jazz and flamenco departments.
Camilo continues: "I love flamenco music, and I’ve always wanted to get closer to it. By exposing yourself to different music, you grow as a musician. If you stay in a cocoon, you find it harder to be enthusiastic about your music—and audiences know when you’re not enthusiastic. When I’m playing with Tomatito, I know that my enthusiasm comes through. Spain is a project by two good friends who decided to play together, see how far they could take it and see how much they could discover about themselves