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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.
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."
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.
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."