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'Calle 54': Latin Jazz Paradise

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 11, 2001


    'Calle 54' Jerry Gonzalez heats things up in "Calle 54."
(Jordi Socials/Miramax)
Call it a labor of love, a musical feast, a cultural celebration. Fernando Trueba's "Calle 54" is all of these and so much more. A brilliantly conceived and elegantly realized documentary tribute to Latin jazz, it packs more drama into each of its 12 musical tableaux than most feature films manage in two hours, more pyrotechnics than your average effects-enhanced blockbuster and more enriching familial interplay than an afternoon of soap operas.

Wisely, Trueba is a sensible enough fan to let the music speak for itself: In 105 minutes of gorgeously recorded sounds, there are only a few minutes of connective interviews, necessitated by the geography of the project. Though New York (and specifically the Sony Music Studio on 54th Street) is ground zero for all the performances, the inspirations and expressions represent Puerto Rico, Cuba, Brazil, Panama, Bolivia, Argentina, Spain and the Dominican Republic. There are no borders here, only common bonds.

Trueba, a Spaniard who won the Best Foreign Film Oscar for 1992's "Belle Epoque," has a director's instinct for the dramatic moment, but he's also blessed with an audiophile's ear and an art director's eye. He dramatizes these performances with primary color-drenched backdrops that end up enriching the mood and experience, focusing on the instruments -- the glimmering gold of the saxophones, for instance, or ebony and ivory keys that get tickled, caressed and attacked by a succession of pianistic suitors -- while capturing the grace and fervor of the players. The camerawork is fluid, possessed of its own complimentary rhythms. The result is one of the most mesmerizing, seductive soundtracks ever committed to film; you'll feel as if you're in the middle of the studio, surrounded by sound.

The film opens with one of the idiom's better-known figures, Cuban-born saxophonist Paquito D'Rivera, whose big-band excursion, "Panamericana," serves up a scintillating soundscape with ever-shifting moods, tempos and textures. It's one of several big band excursions, the others featuring the work of Chico O'Farill, a major architect of Latin jazz, and the legendary Tito Puente, in his last filmed performance before his death last May at age 77. The frail O'Farill is a marvelous composer-arranger, on a par with Duke Ellington and Gerald Wilson, and his "Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite" (filmed in sepia to give it a '40s feel) is alternately vibrant and ethereal.

Puente is first seen honoring the Latin and American jazz greats whose portraits grace the murals at his City Island restaurant, followed by a sizzling, scintillating performance of "New Arrival." It is somewhat strange to find the white-maned Puente and his Latin Jazz Allstars, all dressed in white, playing against a white backdrop -- almost a celestial preview. If heaven's like this, it's hotter than hell.

Tropical rhythms abound among the pianists, from Brazilian Eliane Elias's coolly propulsive "Samba Triste," to Dominican Michel Camilo's fiery "From Within" and Spaniard Chano Dominguez's "Oye Como Viene," which masterfully fuses jazz with flamenco through hand claps, guttural vocals and tap cadences courtesy of flamenco star Tomasito. The pulsating interplay will have you shouting "Ole!" In fact, since there's no audience feedback to these studio performances, it seems entirely natural to treat them as a live event, not a filmed one. Applaud.

There are some blowing sessions, as well, notably Gato Barbieri's robust, ruggedly sensual "Lamerito & Tango Bolivia" and Jerry Gonzales and the Fort Apache Band's roiling "Earth Dance." And the African polyrhythmic currents that course through all this music are illuminated in "Compa Gauetano," a percussion workout marshaled by Orlando "Puntilla" Rios and Carlos Valdes, a k a Patato.

If there is an emotional center to "Calle 54," it belongs to Cuba's Valdes family. First, the gentle giant, Chucho, tears off a solo "Caridad Amaro" that's both exquisitely ethereal and forceful in its cinematic sweep, Later, his father, Bebo, once orchestra leader at Havana's fabled Tropicana nightclub before leaving Cuba in 1960, gets together with legendary Cuban bassist Israel "Cachao" Lopez on "Lagrimas Negras (Black Tears)," a sterling chamber jazz duet that would make John Lewis smile. Finally, Valdes father and son come together at twin Steinways for "La Comparsa." Their dialogue becomes pure familial communion and playful challenge, a clear source of mutual pride and pleasure. It's Trueba's parting kiss to the music he loves, and it will leave traces on your heart.

Calle 54 (Unrated, 105 minutes) – Minimal dialogue in Spanish with subtitles. Mostly performance. At the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle 5.


Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company

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