In Love with Latin Jazz

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

Offers Bebo: "It's a perfect film, because it shows all over, not only to the United States but to South and Central America, what this combination of music is all about."

"People like Bebo and me hold on to the roots, the root of the culture,

and if they don't capture it on film, it will be lost forever," Cachao adds.

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

Calle 54 undoubtedly is a love fest, a high-energy celebration of a form of music -- essentially the rhythms of South America and the Caribbean mixed with the harmonies and melodies of jazz -- that typically gets short shrift. Hispanic-oriented radio stations tend to stick to various forms of Latin pop. Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez are about as close to Latin as mainstream pop outlets will get. And jazz radio all too often leaves Latin jazz out of the mix. So the movie represented a golden opportunity to salute a group of unfairly neglected musicians, virtuosos on their respective instruments. Still tough decisions had to be made. Chano Dominguez, Puntilla y Nueva Generación, and the largely passé Barbieri are among those who made the cut, and talents such as Hilton Ruiz, Giovanni Hidalgo, Dave Valentin, and Steve Berrios serve as sidemen. But Arturo Sandoval, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Ray Barretto, Poncho Sanchez, Mongo Santamaria, Pete Escovedo, and Brazilian jazzers Claudio Roditi and Airto Moreira were left out.

The decision came down to this: Which artists made it into regular rotation on Trueba's CD player? "There are lots [of Latin jazz musicians], and some of them that I like very much are not in the movie," he says. "But I chose the ones who were close to me, the ones that I really listen to all the time at home, that I have all their records. The guys in the movie are people that I'm always listening to."

The other major bit of preproduction planning centered on how Calle 54 was to be shot, in terms of locale. A conventional strategy might have been to take a crew on location, to capture performances at various nightclubs and concert halls. Trueba instead chose to shoot the brief biographical sketches at a variety of locales -- Jerry Gonzalez in Puerto Rico and D'Rivera in suburban New Jersey -- and summon the musicians to the Sony studios, where six Panavision cameras captured what amounts to a private performance for viewers.

"I wanted the best possible sound and to have a unity of sound," he explains. "That's why I brought all of them to the same studio with the same recording engineer [Thom Cadley]. I can't make a musical movie and have everyone sound like a different thing. It would be a mess. That would have been to make cinema more important than the music in the movie, and that would have been a mistake. I wanted to [elevate] the music over the cinema. I wanted the music to be real, to be live."

There's an effecting bit of reality programming, if you will, in Calle 54, which Trueba describes as "a fiction movie where the [musical] pieces were the script." It arrives with the reunion of Bebo and Chucho, who have seen each other only occasionally over the past four decades; this was their first meeting in five years. It's a tender moment, a genteel musical conversation, as the masterful Chucho, in the piece "La Comparsa," shows deference to his single greatest influence.

"It's like an epilogue for the movie," Trueba says. "It's like closing the thing, to put together a father and a son, to put together the old way of playing and the new way of playing. That was a beautiful love scene. Looking at each other -- that's for real. The cameras were there. I was watching that, how they smiled at each other, and I was in awe."

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