By John Murph | Published October 2019
Michel Camilo is no stranger to the languages of Afro-Cuban jazz and modern post-bop. In fact, he has earned a praise-worthy reputation for his fluidity in both idioms, as well as European classical.
Those qualities are pushed to fore on Essence, an album that showcases the pianist leading an 18-piece big band through an enticing program of originals, composed of lavish charts and underscored with irrepressible polyrhythmic propulsion. The program ignites with the rambunctious “And Sammy Walked In,” on which Camilo initiates a swaggering blues motif that’s responded to by punchy horns. After the antiphonic bantering, the rhythm section strikes an infectious medium-tempo cha-cha rhythm that quickly becomes a springboard for Ralph Bowen’s corkscrewing tenor saxophone solo. Camilo helps drive the momentum with a montuno figure, which soon flourishes in a sparking improvisation, decorated with fast-paced single-note runs, blues-laden phrases and skittering patterns.
That sets the pace for most of Essence with sizzling pieces like the serrated “Mongo’s Blues” and the quicksilver “Mano A Mano,” which offers peak points of improvisation. When all the buzzing activity settles, Essence creates more emotional pull. And, sure enough, the evocative “Liquid Crystal” with Camilo’s languid melodies and plush harmonies, and the spellbinding “Just Like You,” on which Bowen unravels another simmering saxophone solo, are the album’s most enthralling moments.
Essence: And Sammy Walked In; Mongo’s Blues Intro; Mongo’s Blues; Liquid Crystal; Mano A Mano; Just Like You; Yes; Piece Of Cake; On Fire; Repercussions; Hello & Goodbye. (60:03)
Personnel: Michel Camilo, piano; Ricky Rodriguez, bass; Cliff Almond, drums; Eliel Lazo, percussion. vocals; Antonio Hart, alto saxophone, flute; Sharel Cassity, alto saxophone, clarinet; Ralph Bowen, tenor saxophone, flute; Adam Kolker, tenor saxophone, clarinet; Frank Basile, baritone saxophone, bass clarinet; Michael Philip Mossman, Raul Argas, John Walsh, Diego Urcola, Kali Rodriguez-Peña, trumpet, flugelhorn; Michael Dease, Steve Davis, Jason Jackson, trombone; David Taylor, bass trombone.