Calle 54: A Celebration of Latin Jazz

Jun 5, 2014

Calle means street in Spanish, and Calle 54 is a street any jazz fan would love to live on. This film is such a celebration of the absolute best in Latin jazz that you will want to turn it up loud, invite the neighbors over, break out the liquid refreshments,and make a party out of it. The musicians certainly did.

Director Fernando Trueba, whose credits include an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language 1992 film Belle Epoque, conceived of this film with Dominican pianist Michel Camilo. In perhaps an unintentional way Calle 54  is a response to Ken Burns’ massive documentary Jazz that appeared the same year but was almost completely devoid of any references to  Afro-Cuban and Latin American contributions. The film captured both the old and new generations of Latino musicians, several of whom did not live much longer after the film was completed.

Calle 54 is also a who’s who in Latin jazz (along with a very lively debate over what that term Latin Jazz means). Along with Michel Camilio, Brazilian pianist Eliane Elias, Spanish flamenco pianist Chano Dominquez, Argentinian saxophonist Gato Barbieri, New York City’s Tito Puente, and Bronx-based Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band, Cubans, Bebo and and his son Chucho Valdez, Paquito D’Rivera, and Chico O’Farrill’s Orchestra all lead their bands in one inspiring performance after another. Taken together they present the tremendous breadth of musical contributions Latino artists have added to the jazz world.The film has many magical moments such as the collaboration between pianist Bebo Valdes and bassist Cachao. Both in their 80s, they’d known each other since they were small boys but this was the first time they ever recorded together. Additionally, Bebo, who left Cuba in 1960, having fallen in love with a Swedish woman, is reunited with his son Chucho and their duet on two grand pianos is deeply moving.

This is a film for anyone who loves Latin jazz and/or for anyone who wants to understand what is it about the Clave beat and the rhythms of Afro-Caribbean instrumentation that are so infectious and soulful. The film’s narrative is in Spanish with English subtitles. Each musician is briefly introduced with shots in and around their home bases. That footage is largely shot during winter, a contrast to the performances that were all shot on the same sound stage where each artist is bathed in a different dramatic background color. The camera work and the audio are absolutely exceptional. In the DVD extras, director Trueba describes his approach to making the film similar to making music. Part of it is rehearsed and part improvised. He knew the structures of the songs going into filming but the cameras move and follow the music as it is created. He says, “I wanted the movie to have a beat parallel to the music.” He adds that there are hardly any general shots but instead the viewer gets loads of details, close-ups on the musicians’ expressions, their instruments, and their hands.  Trueba adds,  “I wanted the audience to feel like they were in the middle of the band and could reach out and touch them.” He certainly succeeds. It is among the most intimate of any concert footage of live music. It is a DVD that is made for a great home entertainment system.

The DVD contains an additional hour-long segment in which the musicians each tell their own interpretations of the history and origins of Latin or Afro-Cuban jazz. Chucho Valdes shows his knowledge of Nigerian culture and rhythms. Jerry Gonzalez extols the three blocks in the Bronx that were home to so many of the early innovators.  Tito Puente is shot inside his restaurant  and shows off the walls that are adorned with paintings of many of the greatest innovators and early champions of Afro-Cuban music. The musicians also talk about each other, about their heroes and influences, and the role that improvisation plays in the language of Latin jazz. This is one of the out-and-out best films about jazz period, regardless of style and is a joy to watch from start to finish, even when the credits roll and Jerry Gonzalez plays unaccompanied trumpet. Do yourself and your friends a favor. Get a hold of a copy of Calle 54 and throw a party. This makes for the perfect soundtrack for the start of summer and is cause for a real celebration.

(Editor's note: Today, June 5, is the birthday of Jerry Gonzalez (The Fort Apache Band) - A pure coincidence!)