Chediak Comeback

A film of Nat Chediak's life could well begin in his study in Key Biscayne, amid the souvenirs of his sweet moments in film and music. There several pictures frame a widescreen TV and shelves of CDs, among them a photo dedicated "with friendship and admiration" from the great cinematographer Nestor Almendros, an expressive black-and-white shot of trumpeter Jerry Gonzalez, and the original cover art of Cachao's Master Sessions. Most prominent is a huge poster promoting Calle 54, director Fernando Trueba's acclaimed Latin jazz documentary.

Ensconced on a leather couch, the former Miami International Film Festival director is splendidly where he wants to be. Relaxed in shorts and a polo shirt, Chediak grins as he listens to rough tracks from a recent recording session with Cuban piano patriarch Bebo Valdés and flamenco singer Diego "El Cigala," who will appear in concert with other special guests on Friday at the Gusman Center. This unlikely but inspired commingling of Cuban sabor with Spanish duende yields a transcendent recording of Cuban bolero and tango. El Cigala emerges as the Sinatra of Spanish song, his passionate phrasing and gritty voice adding rocks to the 84-year-old Valdes's rum-smooth keyboard playing and vivacious arrangements.

"It's the kind of moment any producer just dreams about being there to capture," Chediak chuckles, shaking his head. "They're two different artists but together they feed off each other in the most marvelous way. You have absolutely nothing to do with it; it's just the two of them. Anyone else is only a privileged observer."

The collaboration between Cuban master and cantaor will be the first product of Chediak's new venture, an independent record label he formed with Trueba called Calle 54 Records. Chediak served as associate producer of Trueba's Latin jazz film, and the label is a natural evolution for the partners, who cultivated their shared love of Latin jazz over many hot nights at the film festival jam sessions Chediak organized over the last decade.

"I owe my love of this music to Nat," says Trueba, speaking several days later from a New York recording studio. "What we're doing is producing beauty. It doesn't get better than this. It's something you never forget." The Academy Award-winning director, whose films were once a staple of the Miami Film Festival, is taking an open-ended hiatus from cinema to make music.

"We come from the world of film and we both believe that music is a way of telling a story, perhaps a little more subtly, but it's still the same thing," Chediak says. "And in this case it's being told at such a level that it's catching us totally off guard."

Father of Chucho Valdés, Bebo Valdés was the house pianist at Havana's famed Club Tropicana before the revolution, and is one of the most versatile players and original arrangers Cuba has ever produced. He left Cuba in 1960, meeting his Swedish wife, Rose Marie, while on tour; he ended up in Sweden, where he lived quietly for over 30 years. In 1994, sax player Paquito D'Rivera sought out Valdés and produced his great comeback album, Bebo Rides Again.

"Bebo's a sort of Rip Van Winkle who was asleep for a number of years and retired," Chediak says. "Then Paquito got him into a recording studio, and all of a sudden it came to Bebo that he had a lot more to say and that he had stopped prematurely. Now there's no stopping him." Valdés's El Arte del Sabor (The Art of Flavor), which was produced by Chediak, won a Latin Grammy this year.

"I don't know if I have much time left to enjoy the music," says Valdés, from the New York studio. "But I want to leave it for other people to enjoy."

To that end, Chediak and Trueba are in the midst of recording four different albums with Valdés for the Calle 54 label. "We love Bebo and we want to make sure that his patrimony is preserved for posterity," says Chediak, explaining the unorthodox decision to put so much focus on one artist. "He's playing like there's no tomorrow and we're happy to be there for him."

Chediak, who left the film festival in 2001, made his own comeback of sorts last month, when he presented a concert featuring bass player Charlie Haden and the artists who played on Haden's Grammy-winning album Nocturne. "It had to be done," stresses Chediak. "The album was recorded here and had been a runaway hit -- hel-lo! I mean, please."

Perhaps other promoters had been deterred by the fact that the ensemble featured Cuban jazz pianist Gonzalo Rubalcaba, now a Broward resident, whose 1996 Miami concert was met with ugly protests and threats by Cuban exiles. "Not only did he get a receptive audience this time, he didn't get a demonstration. He didn't get insulted on the way in," Chediak notes dryly. Charged with emotion and the thrill of incredible playing, the Nocturne concert at the Coconut Grove Playhouse was one of Miami's most perfect musical evenings in memory.

"I hadn't done anything for over a year since I left the festival and I was very happy to know that there was still an audience there for a worthwhile venture," muses Chediak. "My formula has always been a mixed crowd. Whenever I can mix it up I know I've got it cooking. I've never played to a strictly Latino audience or to an Anglo audience. Whenever there's a mix it feels right.

"Everything I've done has always been thanks to the audience," he adds. "Not always to the city, county, and state but to the people themselves. The Miami audience has always been there for me, and I think it's because I've never talked down to them. And I have a feeling that when people have failed at different endeavors, it's because they condescended to the public. This audience may not be people in the mainstream, they may not be the Miami we read about or see in the media. But they're there. And they were here for me for eighteen years at the festival. And they were here for me in Nocturne. They've never failed me whenever I've raised the ante. And I can't even get on first base without them."

Chediak, who calls himself "a frustrated musician and frustrated filmmaker," discovered Cuban music through colleagues of his father, who had been the attorney for Panart Records in Havana. Acknowledging his own lackluster attempts at filmmaking in college, he opened a cinematheque in the Seventies and went on to co-found the film festival, bowing out after it was acquired by Florida International University, whose officials wanted to explore 'new approaches to programming.'"

"Nobody's rushing to me with offers to back me, saying 'What would you like to do?'" Chediak acknowledges. "Now I'm just happy to try different things in music the way I used to in film. I'm not working for anybody. I'm doing this on my own, and I'm not depending on anybody's whims. It's at the point where [Fernando and I] are basically doing the albums we want to hear.

"We're riding the crest of the wave in terms of emotion," the producer adds, his bearded grin once again opening into a contented chuckle. "And it's quite lovely."

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Judy Cantor