J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Blue Note Jazz Festival ’16: Playing Lecuona

No 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.

Ernesto 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.

Each 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.

Everybody 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.

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