Latin American bandstand
Former film critic Fernando Trueba directed the earthy, vibrant Belle Époque in which an army deserter in rural 1931 Spain becomes infatuated with the four daughters of an anarchist artist. The film won the 1993 Oscar for best foreign film and introduced America to Penelope Cruz. With Calle 54, Trueba helms yet another celebration of sensuality as he explores the many contours—and salutes his heroes—of Latin Jazz.
This exhilarating, intimate musical valentine is set mostly in the Sony recording studio on Manhattan’s 54th Street (Calle 54). While Wim Wenders and Ry Cooder’s recent Buena Vista Social Club balanced musical interludes with interviews of veteran musicians and commentary on Cuba’s historic music scene, Calle 54 allows its music to mostly speak for itself.
Trueba begins the film saying that Latino music finds “its most noble, jubilant, sophisticated and exuberant expression” in the realm of jazz. He then supports this claim by capturing a dozen impassioned, uninterrupted performances on five 35mm cameras and a SteadiCam. There is no live audience. It’s up to the musicians to stew in their own juices rather than feed off a crowd, and they are certainly up to the task.
The cameras float overhead, peer over shoulders and glide into close-ups. My only disappointment is that the cameras don’t linger quite long enough in one spot. Backgrounds glow in a single color (dusk orange, sky blue, deep red) to complement the moods of the tunes, and the quality of sound has a purity and balance that borders on the sacred.
Each featured artist is briefly introduced on their home turf (including the Bronx, Spain, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Sweden) before playing in the studio. The set up and setting is simplistic but classy, repetitive in a broad sense but modulated in details.
Saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera (“There’s no remedy for the blues like the sound of a sax,” says Trueba) is shown in his snowy New Jersey suburb before his 11-piece band heats up the film with “Panamericana.” Barefooted Brazilian pianist Eliane Elias, with flesh to the pedals and fingers roving ivories in a controlled burn, follows with the elegant “Samba Triste” in a trio setting.
Spaniard pianist Chano Domínguez and company seem like a musical handshake between Monk and flamenco on “Oye Como Viene.” Puerto Rican Jerry Gonzáles is the epitome of Miles-like coolness on flugelhorn and congas as he leads the Fort Apache Band (named after a 1960’s Bronx clash between citizenry and police) through its incendiary paces.
Pianist Michel Camilo ignites “From Within” with an amazing flurry of fingers (“Every time I see him play I feel like I am witnessing a miracle,” says Trueba) and a lesson in dynamics. Argentinian tenor saxman Gato Barbieri launches into a musical rainforest journey (“Hey, hey! I am as quiet as a lagoon bird/But some time I am a puma,” he mouths). Percussionist Tito Puente, who passed away June 1, gives us a tour of the Latin Jazz mural on the wall of his City Island restaurant in New York. He and his band perform in white outfits (that match his hair) with exuberance as if they all had already died and gone to heaven.
Cuban Tropicana bandleader and pianist Bebo Valdéz (exhibiting classical influences in a lyrical solo) joins his son Chucho, who he has not seen in five years, for a duet. The big band number by Cuban-Irish arranger and composer Chico O’Farrill, “Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite,” is best described as Stan Kenton with congas, and is filmed in dazzling, bleached-out black and white. Other artists include acoustic bass statesman Cachao and an Afro-Cuban group featuring Rumba authority and Santeria priest Orlando “Puntilla” Ríos.
Trueba says that Calle 54 is his “way of repaying a debt of gratitude to Latin Jazz, music that has made me enjoy myself and has helped me like no other. It’s a musical about music, about how it is created and how it
emerges. The plot consists of the musical pieces chosen, the protagonists, the musicians.” Trueba’s debt is paid in full.