06/26/01

Calle 54 Jazz Legends

It isn't every day that five major jazz artists appear on one stage in the context of a single show. And it definitely isn't every day that a jazz concert is presented based on a film--if it has ever happened at all. On Sunday night, June 24th, one lucky audience experienced both when the JVC Jazz Festival presented five of the jazz legends profiled in Spanish director Fernando Trueba's film Calle 54 (54th Street), which opened in New York last October. The four-hour concert, which was held at the Beacon Theatre featured (in order of appearance): Jerry Gonzalez and the Fort Apache Band, Eliane Elias, Gato Barbieri, Michel Camilo and Paquito D'Rivera.

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Chris Drukker

Jerry Gonzalez

In fact, Sunday night's performance was probably a first in JVC Jazz Festival history. "We have, for years, produced a show with Ralph Mercado, the Latin music impresario," says Dan Melnick of Festival Productions, Inc. But in all of the Latin shows FPI has done, with Mercado or otherwise, they have had "maybe two Latin groups or a Latin group plus a Jazz group--nothing like Sunday night."

Several years ago, when Trueba first started contemplating a film tribute to Latin Jazz artists, he wasn't thinking about timing. The project germinated naturally from a couple of film-related collaborations with Michel Camilo. But now, in light of the almost complete absence of Latin jazz from Ken Burns' series, it seems that Trueba's timing with Calle 54 could not have been better. And Sunday night's presentation of Calle 54 could not have been a more timely boost for the film, which despite its infectious musical energy and obvious archival merits, has had a very limited screening in the U.S.

Sunday night's concert began right on schedule at just a few minutes after 8:00. It would have been nice to have someone give an introduction to the concert, as Chucho Valdés did for the film when it was featured at the Havana Film Festival in April. It would also have been helpful to have more information about how long the performances and intermissions would last, but the producers did a good job of keeping performances on schedule and flowing smoothly.

Up first were Jerry González and the Fort Apache Band, who drew an immediate and enthusiastic welcome from the crowd. With Steve Berrios on drums, and Joe Ford on alto saxophone, they were high-energy for most of their half-hour, modulated on occasion by the lyrical Larry Willis on piano and Andy González on bass. While some around me felt this was not the most "on" performance they had seen by González, it was a strong start and thoroughly energized the audience for the rest of the evening's shows.

Eliane Elías followed next, with a standout performance. She began with a hard-driving performance of her composition "The Time Is Now," which drew a hugely appreciative response from the audience. The synergy among the trio, which included bassist Marc Johnson and drummer Satoshi Takeishi, was palpable as they dove into their Calle 54 tune, "Samba Triste." Takeishi seemed absolutely driven throughout and enjoying every second and Elías appeared more than pleased as she, Johnson and Takeishi delivered an especially high-energy closing of "Desafinado" to an ecstatic crowd.

Gato Barbieri's appearance brought a distinct change in atmosphere. Beginning with the tunes he played in Calle 54, "Llamerito" and "Bolivia," Barbieri transported his audience to a place that felt more like a tropical rainforest than a jazz festival, by means of some formidable screeches and a great variety of percussive color by Frank Colón. Gato and his group built their momentum gradually, but by the time they began their closing tune, "Viva Emiliano Zapata," they were at full throttle, propelled to a large degree by Robbie González on drums. Barbieri seemed on the verge of exploding into the kind of unbridled playing that made him famous early in his career. A special highlight was when he sang some of the words to "El Arriero." Although he did this for only for a few bars, it was enough to demonstrate that his singing voice, so natural and unaffected on his late '60s and early '70s Flying Dutchman albums, remains so today-and is remarkably unaged.

After a 20-minute intermission, Michel Camilo emerged, arched himself over the keyboards in preparation for unleashing the classical fury that is his trademark, and with enormous energy from Horacio "El Negro" Hernández and Anthony Jackson on contrabass-guitar, roared into "From Within." This brought a standing ovation. Camilo also had a mellow moment, but was back at high speed by his rendition of "A Night in Tunisia," which brought the audience to its feet again for a set-closing standing ovation.

Paquito D'Rivera wrapped up the evening with style-and a little bit of schtick. Peering out at the audience through his clarinet, Paquito thanked everyone for sticking around to the end. The thanks were quickly returned as the ensemble soared into Astor Piazzolla's dazzling "Libertango." An Ernesto Lecuona tune and D'Rivera's "Panamericana" suite from Calle 54 rounded out a performance in which trumpeter Diego Urcola was especially impressive.

Only half-joking, Paquito D'Rivera told the audience at the beginning of his set, "You've heard of 54th Street. We're hoping for a 55th Street."

"I think it's going to open doors for jazz," says Eliane Elías of the film, "[and] not just for Latin jazz. People who hear this will understand some of the creative concepts that we offer."

Sunday night's concert was testimony to the kind of support that films can generate for live music-support that Michel Camilo believes is crucial. "They accomplish what we could never accomplish in one lifetime, they reach so many people-and they become documents for posterity. The more we get documented, the more inspiring it's going to be for the next generation."

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