In Love with Latin Jazz

Miami Film Festival favorite Calle 54 comes to a theater near you

It's a blazingly bright afternoon in late winter, and inside the intimate Baileys Club at the Sheraton Biscayne Bay, the joint is jumping. Bebo Valdés and Israel "Cachao" Lopez, two Cuban-born octogenarian musicians starring in Calle 54, noted Spanish filmmaker Fernando Trueba's loving tribute to the joys of Latin jazz, are in the heat of an afternoon rehearsal with percussionist Luis Miranda.

Long-time Miami resident and bass great Cachao, stout and smallish, is plucking, strumming, and bowing the strings and occasionally slapping the back and sides of his instrument for percussive effects. Bebo, tall and slim, a resident of Sweden since the early Sixties, is expressively caressing his piano with long lean fingers. The two, gliding through a set of venerable Cuban folksongs, exchange knowing glances, just as they do in the film, during a nuanced performance of the classic "Lagrimas Negras." Bebo, a polite soft-spoken man, can barely contain his enthusiasm. "Get it, Luis," he tells the conguero in Spanish. "We're rocking," he adds a few minutes later.

A similar fervor infects every frame of Calle 54, an invigorating audio-visual survey of the contemporary Afro-Cuban and Brazilian jazz scene. The movie, more of a concert film than a documentary, has Trueba using hand-held cameras to mix expository sequences with sumptuously photographed and recorded performances of his own A list of artists, all caught at the fabled Sony Music Studios on 54th Street in New York (hence the title). Rarely have musicians of any genre been captured on film with such vitality.

Bebo Valdés and Cachao meet on 54th Street
Bebo Valdés and Cachao meet on 54th Street

It's an all-star show, one greeted with multiple exuberant ovations two months ago at the Miami Film Festival. The late Tito Puente is on hand, preceded by a short colorful tour of his New York restaurant. So is Cuban piano giant Chucho Valdés, solo and in a sweet duet with his father, Bebo, and Chucho's old Irakere bandmate, alto saxophonist and clarinetist Paquito D'Rivera.

The underappreciated pianist Elaine Elias, accompanied by bassist Marc Johnson and Satoshi Takeishi on a lilting Baden Powell tune, represents Brazil. Six-string electric bassist Anthony Jackson and drummer Horacio "El Negro" Hernandez join Michel Camilo, the Panama-born pianist and composer, for the leader's "From Within," one of the most thrilling and energetic pieces of the movie. Other contenders for those honors might be an updated version of Chico O'Farrill's "Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite," by his big band, or decidedly bohemian trumpeter-percussionist Jerry Gonzalez's version of "Earth Dance," with a quintet featuring his brother Andy Gonzalez on bass. Gato Barbieri, the Argentina-born hitmaker, is there, too, in all his hokey glory.

Trueba's own passion for Latin jazz, as he relates in voice-over during the film's opening moments, was ignited during the early Eighties, when he was given a copy of D'Rivera's Blowin' album by Nat Chediak, founder of the Miami Film Festival and author of the Spanish-language Dictionary of Latin Jazz. For the onetime Bruce Springsteen fan, it was love at first hearing, says the 46-year-old director of Belle Epoque, a 1994 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film.

"I think the sound that Paquito has, the way of soloing he has, makes you fly, throws you through the air," he says, seated in a Sheraton banquet room overlooking Biscayne Bay. "I love that. I love that. Two musicians that I heard all the time were Ben Webster and Bill Evans. But I like many jazz men. I like very much some composers, like Wayne Shorter, [even] aside from his playing, or Horace Silver, or Monk."

It was during the shooting of a Latin-jazz show on Lincoln Road for inclusion in the final scenes of Trueba's 1996 Too Much that he began to consider doing a music documentary; the filmmaker previously had been impressed by the likes of The Band's The Last Waltz and the Talking Heads' Stop Making Sense. Camilo, D'Rivera, and Cachao, among others, played onstage as the crew captured what's described in Calle 54 as "the miracle" of music.

"It was such a magical night shooting that on Lincoln Road," he says. "I could feel not only in me but also in every one of the crew that the music had that special contagious thing. I remember especially Eli Wallach was there and told me the next day: I couldn't sleep, the music was so great. I was so excited that I came to bed and couldn't sleep for one minute.'"

Chediak, the film's associate producer and a collaborator with Trueba on a weekly Latin-jazz radio show, describes his friend's decision to make Calle 54 as a sort of gift exchange, a way of repaying to the genre what it had given to the director.

"For Fernando art is supposed to make life easier for you," Chediak says. "It's supposed to celebrate the joy of being alive. And Latin jazz has rescued Fernando from many a blue funk. So I see the film as a valentine to the music, to its creators, and I think that's why it lavishes such attention on the act of creation. It does not purport to be historical, to be informative, as far as data and placing people in certain historical contexts."

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