Lord, I'm probably one of the worst people to write about a movie about jazz. I can identify Dizzy Gillespie if he's holding his telltale trumpet, and I once got a glimpse of Tito Puente in the halls of WBAI radio when I was working there (but I had no idea who he was). I usually change the station when jazz more modern than Ellington hits the airwaves, and I run screaming from the room if subjected to John Coltrain's sax experiments. In other words, I'm a jazz ignoramus.
It may be that this lack of expertise makes me the best person to write about Calle 54, a documentary about Latin jazz. After all, if I was completely turned on by the performances I heard (and I was), if I was wowed by the passion and artistry of these many musicians (and I was), how much more might you be transported (and you will be) if you know the first thing about the music?
Spanish filmmaker Fernando Trueba begins the documentary with a confession: He loves Latin jazz, and his aspiration has been to make a film where the music is everything. He succeeds for, unlike most documentaries about musicians, this one really is about music. More than any other film, Calle 54 reminded me of The Last Waltz -- all about music and nothing else. But unlike The Band's big rock 'n' roll extravaganza, this work is an intimate showcase of the music and musicians. There's Tito Puente (oh, if only I had known what I was missing when he recorded in Studio A), grinning and hamming, caressing and pounding the congas. Or Michel Camilo, whose trio plays the most remarkable composition with him at the lead on the keyboard, hands moving faster than the film can record. Or Cuban father and son Bebo and Chucho Valds, reunited to play a tender, careful and gorgeous piano duet. Or Gato Barbieri, playing a composition created especially for a film never made but evoked nonetheless. And on and on and on.
One performance after another is carefully recorded and lovingly documented. Interspersed with the music are short introductions to the musicians that, in comparison to the sophisticated music filming, are downright weird. Mostly they are brief introductions to the artists walking alone, outside, crunching across the days-old snow of an East Coast winter. What's going on here? My suspicion: All the filmmaker's money went into setting up the sights and sounds of the studio recordings. There was neither time nor money left for lights and interior sound, nor for multiple trips to New York. So, there they are, one after another -- jazz legends bundled up in parkas and watchcaps and mittens.
Forget the introductions, though. They merely serve as a way to bring you back to the harsh reality of gray skies and snow before you're transported once again into incredible warm worlds of rhythm and melody and collaboration.
And for those of us who can't go at all to New York or New Jersey or Puerto Rico or Cuba to listen to these artists, a trip to the video store will be in order (Silver Cinema's run of Calle 54 was just one week). I'm figuring that the natural audience for this film should be the entire brass section of the Colorado Springs Symphony, the African drum aficionados who hang out downtown, pianists of any age and musical persuasion and then all the rest of us, who can learn so much more by listening to this incredible music.