When I reached Raul Midon by phone he had just returned from a tour of Europe. With a vocalist, lead guitarist, rhythm guitarist, bassist, percussionist, and trumpet player in tow, it could have been a complicated tour. Luckily, all of those musician are the one-man band that is Raul Midon.
Midon plays bass, chords, and flamenco-like riffs simultaneously on the guitar, which he also taps for percussion. His Stevie Wonder-like voice is nicely unleashed. And then there's that mouth trumpet.
Stylistically, it's tough to pin him down.
"When I moved to New York, the first three weeks I was there I realized I was never going to be the best guitar player, I was never going to be the best singer and I was never going to be the best songwriter," Midon says. "But maybe, if I put them all together, I could be something different."
Midon, who grew up in New Mexico, was very close to his twin brother who is now a NASA engineer. Blind since birth, both were high achievers.
"We always had a mantra in our family about being good at what we did," Midon says. "There was a lot of reading out loud; we read Shakespeare when we were kids. I think it engendered a thirst for learning. We always used to say: To be average as a blind person, you have to work twice as hard, and to be better than average you have to work even harder. We had an eclectic musical atmosphere. I took it all in."
He began taking lessons at six years old with a flamenco guitarist. Meanwhile, he absorbed Santana, Led Zeppelin and other popular music. Then came classical training, learning pieces by Villa-Lobos, and lute pieces. In college he studied jazz guitar.
"I went through a period in my early 20's where I just transcribed [played or sang] jazz solos," Midon says. "Louis Armstrong, Lester young, Charlie Parker, Coltrane, Miles [Davis], Clifford Brown..."
Midon has no shortage of role models when it comes to singing.
"There's a big soul influence," Midon says. "Stevie Wonder, Aretha [Franklin], Donny Hathaway, Al Green — the whole style captured me as a kid. I remember being fascinated by the turns and swoops and the way somebody could do a run and end up smack dab on pitch."
While he has studied songwriting and has written many "AABA" songs, Midon's tunes tend to go unusual places with stream-of-conscious lyrics.
"The reason I started writing my own music was there was music I wanted to play that I didn't hear happening anywhere else," Midon says. "I had no preconceived notions about what I should play. I went through a period where I'd pick up a guitar and just make up stuff.
"As I got into it I realized that I have to write from the perspective of a blind person, to see the world through your imagination. Even in terms of metaphors, I'm very conscious of not just taking the first thing that comes into my mind because it rhymes. How can I say what I'm trying to say in a way that rings true for me? To find my voice as a writer is something I'm still working on."
One of Midon's most unique talents is the mouth trumpet. While others mimic the brassy sound, he includes trills, a mute, and even flat notes reminiscent of Miles Davis.
"Miles is a huge inflence, the way he phrases and takes a note and slides it, it's almost like a sad mournful sound," Midon says. "It started as a way of having another instrument that I could use. At first people thought it was a gimmick but it was purely a musical exploration. When I was transcribing [trumpeter] Clifford Brown I thought, 'I wonder if I could make the sound and do the solo that way.'"
If that's not enough, Midon has added bongos to his act.
"That actually came out of a tour with Richard Bona," he says. "He's the only solo performer that has ever scared me out of my wits that I had to go on after him. Like, oh my god, what am I gonna do? I figured out how to play bongos and guitar and sing at the same time."
Midon rejects the common notion that blindness gave him any extra sensitivity to music. But, he says, it's definitely had an effect on his career.
"Blindness, like any disability, focuses the mind. I realized that I had this gift for music and this was a way that I could maybe have a job. If I wanted to do it I had to be really good at it. Also, being blind closes a lot of other paths so it helps to focus your will and your work ethic. That's what it did for me."
Raul Midon will perform Sunday, June 21, 6:30 p.m. and 9 p.m., at Xerox Auditorium, 100 South Clinton Avenue. Midon will perform again on Monday, June 22, at Lyric Theatre, 440 East Avenue. Tickets for all shows are $20, or you can use your Club Pass. raulmidon.com
City Newspaper's guide to Rochester's biggest music festival. The 2016 Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival runs Friday, June 24, through Saturday, July 2. For more reviews, blogs, photos, and the latest news, check our website every day of the festival.
The 2016 Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival runs Friday, June 24, through Saturday, July 2, and City Newspaper will be out every night of the festival, covering multiple shows.