April 21, 2010

A Love Letter to Latin Jazz

Calle 54Calle 54 is clearly the work of an enraptured lover of Latin jazz, and the film looks marvelous. This 2000 documentary was directed by Spaniard Fernando Trueba, who also directed the wonderfully sexy film Belle Époque (1992), starring Penelope Cruz. Here, he films some of the all-time greats of Latin jazz playing their music, including Tito Puente, Eliane Elias, Gato Barbieri, Michel Camilo, Chico O’Farrill, and Chucho and Bebo Valdéz. Each musician is briefly introduced while they are filmed (often as solitary figures) in their own homes or neighborhoods, whether in New York City, Havana, Cuba, or Stockholm, Sweden.
     But the bulk of the film is performance, all done on a soundstage and intimately filmed with beautiful sound quality. (The title of the film refers to 54th Street in New York City, the location of Sony Music Studios, where the performances were shot.) We see Chico O’Farrill conducting a big band, Tito Puente as the over-animated rhythmic center of his group, and a wonderful duet with Bebo Valdéz and bassist Israel López “Cachao.” Chucho and Bebo also play a father-son piano duet. One couldn’t have asked for anything better in a music video.
     However, virtually no historical context regarding Latin jazz is provided. And I found myself wanting to see more about the musicians’ personal lives. The snippets we get wet the appetite but leave you unfulfilled. We visit Tito Puente in his eponymous restaurant on City Island, showing off his murals to Latin jazz. And there’s a wonderfully quirky interview with Gato Barbieri in a horse-drawn carriage in Central Park. Gato sounds as if he’s just been taken from a 1970s time capsule, and his answers to the filmmaker’s questions (which have been edited out) come across as a string of nostalgic and crazy non sequitirs. But Gato’s performance that follows is gangbusters.
     For some great Latin jazz, filmed and recorded with loving care, you couldn’t do better than Calle 54. Highly recommended.

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