Put Raul Midón in a box and he’ll jump right out. Songwriter, instrumentalist, mouth-musician, soul singer, jazz improvisor, Latin songster, guitarist, baritone. None of those identifiers works alone to define his musical strengths. He is all, and more of them, and there’s no box that will contain him. His ribbons of talent overflow; they don’t tie him up.
Amazing we haven’t heard Midón, 50, in Portland before, though he recalls a maybe-concert with fellow songster Jason Mraz (“Waiting for my Rocket to Come” ) on Ray Charles’ birthday about 12 years ago.
This week, Midón will appear as a sole act for two evening shows Friday, Sept. 9, at Portland jazz club Jimmy Mak’s. Expect to be gobsmacked by his musical versatility and his honey-hued baritone that rises effortlessly into a tenor range and even higher into a falsetto.
If Midón chooses to perform John Coltrane’s signature “Giant Steps “ in 12 keys, he will add lip-singing (not synching) that produces solo horn sounds. He will alternate between bongos and guitar as he croons his original songs (expect Latin flavors among them), and if there’s a piano around, as there usually is at Jimmy Mak’s, he’ll play it. He has been compared to Stevie Wonder for his Latin-soul vibe, among other things; to Bill Withers (“Lean on Me,” “Ain’t No Sunshine”) for his R&B songwriting and singing; and to Stevie Winwood for his multi-pronged instrumentality.
Amid the comparisons, he’s wholly himself — and insistent on his fluid niche.
“I write songs but just don’t strum and sing,” Midón told ArtsWatch in August from his home in Laurel, Maryland. “I play the guitar and and the bongos and improvise at the same time. I make up songs and tell stories. I’m as virtuosic on guitar as on voice.”
He is not short on confidence, if he is on sight. He wears dark glasses because he is is blind and has been for his entire life. He and his twin brother, Marco, were hyper-oxygenated in the incubator after a premature birth in rural New Mexico. Marco, a NASA engineer, could see partially until he was 15.
Raul never saw except through music, literature and his imagination.
His father, an Argentinean folkloric dancer and restaurant owner, exposed his sons to music at an early age. (His artist African-American mother died when he was four and his maternal grandmother took over his upbringing.) They listened to LPs in the 1960s ad ‘70s like other kids play video games now. “We listened to a record from beginning to end, really listened, from Miles [Davis] to [Arnold] Schoenberg to Philip Glass. Anything and everything.” Except pop music.
Raul and his brother played bongos and congas when they were fooling around at home, and his parents picked up on Raul’s musical proclivities. “We’d make up rhythms like other kids played Monopoly,” he remembers.
Midón’s father hosted flamenco dancers during the summer at his restaurant in Samba, N.M., and Raul recalls the dancers’ passionate rhythms as clearly as he does his years at blind school in Alamogordo, New Mexico, where teachers put his fingers on the guitar chords. He later attended a fancy Santa Fe prep school on scholarship and read Joseph Conrad, Malcolm X and Friedrich Nietzsche, writers who made him see the world through the unsighted senses, and helped to make a songwriter of him.
Before his solo career, Midón worked as a sideman and backup singer to such latin stars as Shakira and Julio and Enrique Iglesias. He performed with Queen Latifah and Snoop Dogg, Stevie Wonder and Herbie Hancock, and contributed to the soundtrack of Spike Lee’s 2004 film, She Hate Me. After he graduated from University of Miami’s prestigious jazz program in the early 1990s, Midón stuck around Miami, but by the time he met his wife/manager/stylist Kathleen Kausch in 2000, he was bent on leaving Florida and becoming a one-man band.
Since then, Midón has been on his own, traveling the world, and performing with such musicians as Lizz Wright and Dianne Reeves, who has appeared in Portland a number of times, including at this year’s PDX Jazz Festival.
“Dianne is a high-level jazz improviser,” Midón said. “There are not a whole lot of singers who can truly improvise — and I’m not talking about half-assed scat singing. Chord changes take a fair amount of sophistication. Frank Sinatra didn’t improvise. He knew he could be a great singer without doing it. Improvising isn’t a singer’s bread and butter. But Dianne can truly do it.” And when he sang with Reeves, he said, “We were doing it. We were going out on the edge and coming back.”
Midón has a number of albums behind him, including the lauded and most recent Don’t Hesitate” (2014) as well as State of Mind (2005), A World Within a World (2007), and the upcoming Bad Ass and Blind. He has found recording technology that he says allows him to meter music with a keyboard rather than by dragging and dropping with a mouse. He does his own recording and engineering at his home studio in Laurel, Md., a riverside town between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore that Midón describes as “very unremarkable.” His music, however, is otherwise.