special effect is as impressive as Chucho Valdés fingers chewing up the piano
keys. Yet, believe it or not, Michel Camilo and Gonzalo Rubalcaba might just
edge him out in this first class performance documentary. Of course, it is not
a competition per se, but we’re talking jazz here, so there’s always an element
of competitive drive. At the risk of sounding corny, we can definitely say
viewers and listeners are the real winners when Pavel Giroud & Juan Manuel
Villar Betancourt’s Playing Lecuona (trailer here) screens during the Blue Note Jazz Festival.
Lecuona lived an eventful life, but the audience will mostly have to pick that
up through osmosis. There is not much in the vein of traditional biography, but
the three titans of Latin Jazz piano certainly do right by his compositions—and
then some. At least the charismatic Camilo gives us some handy nutshell
context, explaining Lecuona brought the rhythms and colors of Afro-Cuban
musical forms into classical composition in much the same way George Gershwin
did with jazz and blues. Like Gershwin in America, Lecuona’s tunes have
provided fertile ground for Afro-Cuban Jazz re-interpretation, as our rotating
musical hosts amply illustrate.
Playing Lecuona is probably the
best jazz documentary since Calle 54,
which makes a certain amount of sense, since both Camilo and Valdés appeared in
Fernando Trueba’s modern classic, as did Valdés’ late father Bebo. Sadly, the
senior Valdés died before the filming of PL
started, but his presence is felt throughout. Buena Vista Social Club
member Omara Portuondo certainly attests to that.
pianist plays several Lecuonda pieces with ensembles and they accompany a
vocalist at least once. Valdés takes us on a frustrating tour of Havana, with
only a neglected plaque to commemorate the towering (staunchly anti-Communist)
Cuban composer. Rubalcaba explores Lecuona’s Flamenco inspirations in Seville,
while Camilo follows in the maestro’s footsteps in New York and Tenerife. The
time spent with all three is quite enjoyable, in a laid back, anecdotal sort of
way, but the music is the thing here and it is terrific.
knows Valdés has technique coming out of his nose, but Camilo and Rubalcaba
will unleash some flurries that will surprise and delight Chucho die-hards.
There is some spectacular piano being played—and Queens residents will be proud
to know they are Steinways. In fact, the film also offers a valentine to the
traditional hand-crafted piano manufacturer, which so many jazz musicians truly
seem to prefer. While we are on the subject of coolness, it is also rather
gratifying to see Rubalcaba tooling around in a Porsche. Good for him.
When Valdés, Camilo, and Rubalcaba dig into
Lecuona’s music, they all produce genuine “wow” moments. Santiago Torres’ stylish
cinematography well suits the elegant sophistication and ecstatic energy of their
performances. The film always looks great and sounds absolutely incredible.
Frankly, there is probably more talent captured on-screen in this doc than any
other film you will see this year, especially when you consider the Flamenco
musicians Rubalcaba collaborates with, including Flamenco-Blues guitarist
Raimundo Amador. Very highly recommended for anyone with ears, Playing Lecuonda screens this Thursday
(6/23) at the IFC Center, as part of this year’s Blue Note Jazz Festival.
Labels: Blue Note Jazz Festival '16, Chucho Valdes, Documentary, Ernesto Lecuona, Gonzalo Rubalcaba, Michel Camilo