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Few would voluntarily blend medical school with jazz training.
The methods for learning medical dogma through rote memorization aren't exactly conducive to free-wheeling lyrical improvisation. The two disciplines flex different parts of the brain, build different skill sets, forge distinct approaches to life.
Still, longtime jazz pianist Michel Camilo was this close to becoming a doctor.
Up until medical school, Camilo's path followed a familiar course methodical, but no less ardent than that of his club-bound colleagues. Born in the Dominican Republic in 1954, he was a prodigy, picking up an accordion at age 4 ½ and finding the notes to "Silent Night" and "Happy Birthday." By age 9, he was learning classical music. A year later, his parents sent him to the national conservatory to study. By 14, he'd heard jazz on his cousin's radio show and was hooked.
"It was the biggest shock of my life," he says.
But his parents wanted him to have a job when he grew up. So he enrolled in medical school, simultaneously studying the Krebs cycle and playing piano with the Republic's national symphony orchestra.
Eventually, the drumbeat of visiting American musicians pestering him to see New York's jazz clubs quashed those half-made plans for a career as a doctor, and in 1979, Camilo and his wife (and now-manager), Sandra, moved to New York.
Rather than plunge into the club scene to get his start, Camilo learned to compose through a correspondence course in jazz theory from Boston's Berklee College of Music. Then, and only then, did he start circulating.
He paid for further study at Juilliard with a job playing rehearsal piano for a Bob Fosse show on Broadway. In 1983, he wrote "Why Not?" and put lyrics to it for Manhattan Transfer. Dizzy Gillespie performed his composition "Caribe."
His break came the next year at the Montreal Jazz Festival, when Camilo got a last-minute gig playing with drummer Tito Puente. Pianist Ana-Maria Vera picked him to open for her at Carnegie Hall and told him to cut his ensemble to three (she insisted he couldn't have a bigger band than she did).
The trio format stuck.
Camilo survived the 1980s downturn in American jazz by recording with a Japanese label and performing in Asia and Europe. His self-titled album, released in 1988, stayed at the top of the charts for 10 weeks. In 2000, he was featured along with Latin jazz luminaries Puente and saxophonist Paquito d'Rivera in the documentary film "Calle 54."
After so many years, his discography comprises two dozen recordings, including "What's Up?" from 2013, which earned a Grammy for Best Latin Jazz Album. On his most recent recording, last year's "Spain Forever" an album dedicated to Spanish and Latin composers including Ennio Morricone and Chick Corea Camilo paired with flamenco guitarist "Tomatito," José Fernandez Torres.
For his show at Capitol Theatre on Saturday, the first JazzSLC installment of the new year, Camilo will play with two longtime collaborators bassist Lincoln Goines and drummer Cliff Almond. Goines has played with Camilo since the 1980s, when both backed d'Rivera. Almond joined Camilo's trio in 2000.
"We're like a family. We know each other inside out," Camilo says. "You want a three-way dialogue the confidence is there and the communication is very high level. You can only do that with guys who have been part of your musical endeavor and vision."
He considers his playlist "chamber music for the rhythm section" combining Latin and Afro-Caribbean beats with the remnants of his classical training in ensemble pieces, improvisations and "shout" choruses.
Pulling from more than 20 albums, the problem, he says, "will be deciding what to leave out."
Michel Camilo Trio
When • Saturday, Jan. 7, 7:30 p.m.
Where • Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $10-$29.50; artsaltlake.org, 801-355-ARTS (2787) or at the box office