In an odd twist, Academy Award-winning director Fernando Trueba chose to base the conception of his new movie, Calle 54, with the music. In this case, he investigates Latin jazz. That’s the way music should be presented cinematically . After the germination of his musical thesis, Trueba dramatizes it visually somewhat akin to Disney’s ground-breaking, albeit pedantic, execution with Fantasia. In both cases, the music is the reason for the films’ existences.
A true lover of music, and particularly Latin jazz, Trueba modestly sought a way to communicate to a larger audience through a medium other than the CD the inspirational power of music. The only art form that makes people get up and dance, and that brings them together, and that vanishes as soon as it’s createdmusic receives duly respectful attention on Calle 54. Exceptional Latin musicians of distinctly different styles simply play the music.
That doesn’t mean that the music is played simply, though. (The placement of an adverb can make all the difference in the world.) Like jazz, the various forms of Latin music, whether orchestral or dance or folk, can be infinitely complex. These forms share the commonalities of polyrhythmic percussiveness and the wordless expression of the Latin experience, whether it’s Cuban, Brazilian, Panamanian, Dominican, Bolivian, Argentinean, Spanish, Chilean, Mexican, Puerto Rican or Venezuelan. The same irresistible spirit prevails throughout Calle 54 in unalloyed purity of energy.
Perhaps because of Trueba’s fascination with the music, the CD, Calle 54, contains almost invariably, and without exaggeration, extraordinary and honest performances. Recorded with careful attention to detail and fidelity at Sony’s studios in New York, the music of Calle 54 is an event unto itself, as it contains sufficient variety and an abundance of remarkable talent.
Would that there were space to analyze each track and describe its strengths. Suffice it to say that, while none of them are repetitive or even of the same style, all of the numbers, averaging six minutes in length, pack a density of ideas and contrasting motifs and movements.
Paquito D’Rivera’s “Panamericana,” which starts the CD, is a perfect example. It consists of shimmering percussion behind a short D’Rivera cadenza; a vocal exhortation inviting the listener into the experience; the development of Afro/Caribbean hand drumming; an assertive brass statement; an evolution into a light tango theme, complete with bandoneon; a bi-metrical enlivening of the tune; an engaging colloquy between D’Rivera on alto sax and vibraphone; a return to the Afro/Caribbean beat under a trumpeted flow; a recombination of all of the preceding threads; and a penultimate, ruminative, spurious fade-out before the final clarineted run. All in seven minutes.
Eliane Elias calms things down as her trio performs “Samba Triste” with taste and the ever-present concentration on the shifting internal harmonies of Brazilian music within the placid exterior melody. But then Spaniard Chano Dominguez raises the temperature, thrilling and challenging listeners with his unconventional fusing of jazz with native flamenco dance and song. Hand-clapping, olé’s and foot-tapping ensue as he embarks on a jazz waltz that gains ever-increasing momentum. Is it jazz? Is it flamenco? Well, it’s both, and masters like Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Gil Evans and Chick Corea long ago realized that boundaries are meaningless.
I could go on. Space prevents long-winded description of all of the music.
While each track is a gem unto itself, one of the many striking accomplishments of Calle 54 is Chico O’Farrill’s creation of tensions between brass-led exclamation and pianistic serenity, melodic comfort and percussive alarm, simplicity and elaboration on “Afro-Cuban Jazz Suite.” Gato Barbieri puts his distinctive saxophone tonality to effective use on “Introccion Llamerito & Tango/Bolivia” by abandoning lyricism and instead developing wordless spiritual expression over an insistent quarter-note-and-two-eighth-note repetitive beat.
Of course, Chucho Valdés cannot be ignored on any recording wherein he appears, as he seems incapable of less than a thrilling performance no matter what the venue. One of the highlights of Calle 54, though, is the final track that reunites Chucho with his father, the once-legendary but all-but-forgotten Bebo Valdés. Moving to Stockholm in the early 1960’s after leaving Cuba, Bebo Valdés is enjoying rediscovery with listeners who wondered what happened to him. More importantly, Bebo Valdés is enjoying reunion with his son on “La Comparasa,” on which one can hear the basis of Chucho’s talent as well as father and son’s deference for the variety of their homeland’s music.
Of course, a tribute to Latin jazz would be incomplete without the participation, unfortunately posthumously, of Tito Puente on “New Arrival.” After he generously allows his band members to offer their own interpretations of this song of joy, Puente comes in with a reminder of his inimitable talent on timbales, not to mention the ability of all of his music to spread happiness.
No doubt, Calle 54 will be a collectible film about Latin music that enthuasiasts will savor. It may spark much discussion in the press (and hopefully, at the 2002 Academy Awards ceremony). But the music stands on its own. Calle 54 is an inspiring CD that, when all is said and done in 2001, will be one of the top Latin releases of the year.
The world of jazz is a musical space with a complex history and haunting appeal--a space to revisit and celebrate. It’s that
amazing moment when you hear a really great song you haven't heard in years and you still know the tune and every word.