Review: ‘Spirits of Havana’

Since her 1992 album, "Spirits of Havana," Canadian soprano sax and flute jazz artist Jane Bunnett has built bridges between jazz and Cuban music. The National Film Board of Canada has produced a docu of the same title. It's an honest reflection of its subject and is sure to play well globally in fests and on arts-oriented TV outlets.

Since her 1992 album, “Spirits of Havana,” Canadian soprano sax and flute jazz artist Jane Bunnett has patiently built bridges between jazz and the diverse schools of Cuban music, and her project is now given the ultimate Canuck stamp of approval — with a limber, cinema verite-tinged National Film Board of Canada-produced feature docu of the same title. Long before musica Cubano became trendy, particularly through the offices of the Buena Vista Social Club, Bunnett had been following in the tradition of Dizzie Gillespie, who first explored and popularized the fusion of mambo, rumba and salsa with be-bop long before Castro. With surprisingly little reference by either Bunnett, her producer-trumpeter-husband Larry Cramer or any of her Cuban compadres to politics, pic gets down to musical business and generally stays there. It’s an honest reflection of its subject and is sure to play well globally in fests and on arts-oriented television outlets.

As Bunnett and Cramer arrive for a five-week stay in 1999, the latest of several to Cuba since 1982, they go right away into rehearsals and recording at Havana’s run-down Egrem Studios with some of the country’s top players. Even Cramer, who has long become used to the slower, more casual, even chaotic way of doing a Cuban studio session, grows testy at the endless delays and clowning around; magically, however, when it’s time to record Tata Guines’ fatalistic tale of rum, “Ron con Ron,” the large ensemble led by Bunnett delivers a thoroughly engaging take.

Bunnett has spearheaded projects bringing Cuban musicians north to Canada and the U.S. and helping replenish the seriously decayed state of instruments in the country’s 25 music conservatories, but this is the first time that she has traveled through the provinces to play with notable groups outside of Havana. Unlike Gillespie, Bunnett’s jazz roots lie in the avant-garde (a major influence was Charles Mingus, and her collaborators have included pianists Don Pullen and Paul Bley), and she clearly has to pull in her natural tendencies to “go outside” when playing along with these masterful but more traditional players. But she also readily says that she is continuing to learn from such ensembles as the 73-year-old group, Los Naranjos, which teaches her a thing or two about the distinct Cuban style of son, and the extraordinary spiritualism of Desandaan, a choral group in the remote town of Camaguey that by all rights should be as celebrated worldwide as any member of the Buena Vista Social Club.

Vid camerawork directed by Bay Weyman and Luis O. Garcia is observant and spontaneous to the journey’s moment-to-moment changes, with rare insertions of Bunnett’s voiceover.

Spirits of Havana

Canada

Production

A National Film Board of Canada presentation. (International sales: National Film Board of Canada, Montreal.) Produced by Peter Starr. Executive producer, Louise Lore. Directed by Bay Weyman, Luis O. Garcia.

Crew

Camera (color video), John Westheuser; editor, Ricardo Acosta; music, Jane Bunnett, Tata Guines, Los Munequitos de Matanzas, Los Naranjos, Desandann; sound (Dolby Digital), Todd Fraracci. Reviewed at L.A. Latino Film Festival, Hollywood, July 27, 2001. Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Jane Bunnett, Larry Cramer, Bobby Carcasses, Ernesto Gatell, Amado Dedeu, Guillermo Rubalcaba, Papi Oviedo, Tata Guines, Pancho Quinto, Peter Noy, Courtney Wescott, Emilia Diaz.
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