Arturo Sandoval takes Aspen stage
November 15, 2009
ASPEN – Arturo Sandoval’s next album, scheduled for release in February, is “A Time for Love.” It is his first album to feature a string section from beginning to end – “lush, beautiful string arrangements,” said the trumpeter – and has inspired Sandoval to name the style: “jazzical,” a cross between jazz and classical.
Some will cringe at the thought of blending jazz and classical, having heard too many cross-over attempts that sound forced, mushy or nonsensical, the end product stripped of the precision of classical and the spontaneous fire of jazz. Those who heard singer Al Jarreau backed by an orchestra this past summer at the Benedict Music Tent might favor an all-out ban on any project where the two forms intersect. And it might be that “A Time for Love” turns out a stinker – although, given Sandoval’s track record at stretching into new musical terrain, the smart money is on an artistically successful recording.
For Sandoval, the beauty of the project is that, as much as people might want him to stick to the Latin jazz he is best known for, no one can force him not to make it. No one can dictate what he does with his music. Even if “A Time for Love” turns out to be an album he himself wants to bury. This is no small thing for a musician who spent his first 40 years in Cuba, where the government’s intrusion into daily life extends to the choice of instruments permitted on the bandstand. In Irakere, the ’70s band that Sandoval co-founded with pianist Chucho Valdes and saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera and that went on to international fame, the drummer wasn’t permitted to use cymbals. “Because it sounds like jazz or rock ‘n’ roll, like the music of the Yankee imperialist,” said Sandoval while driving out of Phoenix, heading toward a gig in Los Angeles. ” That was an order we got from the government. Among other things we weren’t allowed to play.”
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In 1990, when he finally had the chance to bring his wife and his youngest son with him, Sandoval moved to the U.S., settling in Miami. Nine years later, he became an American citizen.
America has been good for Sandoval’s career: He has won four Grammy Awards; played with Frank Sinatra and Dizzy Gillespie, Justin Timberlake and Alicia Keys; and seen his life story turned into the HBO movie “For Love or Country,” an award-winning project that starred fellow Cuban exile Andy Garcia as Sandoval.
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Sandoval began touring outside of Cuba, largely in Europe, in 1971. He first came to the States, as a member of Irakere, in 1978; the group’s first U.S. appearance was at Carnegie Hall. The performances away from Cuba were just a taste of what was possible without a dictatorial regime hanging over every note. Still, there was always the reminder that too much capitalistic influence in the music could mean trouble. Sandoval says the bands he was in were routinely accompanied by a member of the state police, “faking like they were road managers.”
Fleeing Cuba was “like you’re born again. That’s the feeling I got,” said Sandoval, who recorded 10 albums in his first five years living in Florida. “Oh my goodness, it affected the way I felt – completely free to express myself all the way through … When I’m on-stage, the first priority is to feel and enjoy the absolute freedom – the ability to experiment, explore any potential idea.”
Even without total freedom, Sandoval distinguished himself musically. A native of Artemisa, a small city near Havana, he began playing at age 12 in small local band that limited itself to traditional Cuban tunes. In his teens, he earned a three-year scholarship to study classical music. But in classical music, he ran into both practical and ideological barriers: There was only one classical orchestra in the country, which severely limited the opportunities to perform – especially for a trumpeter. And the repertoire was focused almost exclusively on Russian composers. “I never, ever in Cuba was able to play a single note of classical music,” Sandoval lamented.
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Fortunately, Sandoval has become fascinated with jazz. And thanks to fellow trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who pioneered the enduring fusion between Afro-Cuban music and jazz, there was a relatively safe style in which Sandoval and like-minded Cuban players could express themselves. Irakere, building off a strong performance at the 1978 Newport Jazz Festival (held that year in Carnegie Hall), became an international sensation, earning a 1980 Grammy Award. In 1981, Sandoval formed his own sextet; he was voted Cuba’s best instrumentalist from 1982-90.
In his nearly two decades in the U.S., Sandoval has made full use of his freedom. He seems to embrace every opportunity there is to express himself. Onstage, he is a wonder of energy and enthusiasm. He has performed at the Grammy Awards, at the Latin Billboard Awards and at the Academy Awards. He is a professor at Florida International University, and in 2006 he opened The Arturo Sandoval Jazz Club in Miami Beach. (According to Sandoval’s website, the club is temporarily closed and is being relocated.) Sandoval performs as a classical musician, and has appeared with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Leningrad Symphony. In 2002, he released “My Passion for the Piano,” an album that spotlighted his considerable talent as a jazz pianist.
Out of that history, three episodes stand out for Sandoval. He played on Frank Sinatra’s final recording, 1994’s “Duets II.” He was asked by composer John Williams to make the only recording to date of Williams’ Trumpet Concerto. Perhaps closest to his heart, he forged a tight and productive relationship with his idol, Gillespie. But Sandoval, who turned 60 last week, doesn’t dwell on past accomplishments. “A Time for Love,” the upcoming album, is a stab at a new style, and features two collaborators who Sandoval has not worked with: trumpeter Chris Botti and vocalist Monica Mancini. “You must believe you’re still trying to grow as an artist. It’s a long process and should take a lifetime,” said Sandoval, who brings his sextet to the Wheeler Opera House on Sunday, Nov. 15. “I’m a hard worker. I took the music, from the beginning, very seriously. It’s my passion. I haven’t stopped practicing, being dedicated. I never fooled around with any kind of drugs, never. Maybe I’m a weird guy in the jazz business.”
America may have allowed him to fully unleash that creative energy. But even had he stayed in Cuba, Sandoval thinks he would have found some way to express himself.
“When you have that music inside your soul, you’re going to get it out,” he said. “Even if there are police telling you not to.”