ARTURO SANDOVAL: SATURDAY, APRIL 30—ZATARAIN’S WWOZ JAZZ TENT, 5:35 P.M.
There are precious few musicians in the world as fully realized as Cuban-born trumpeter Arturo Sandoval. His formidable improvisational skills easily cross musical history, from nineteenth century Europe through Cuban rhythms and traditions and modern jazz. See the HBO biopic For Love or Country: The Arturo Sandoval Story to get a sense of his amazing personal story of defecting from Cuba and playing with his idol Dizzy Gillespie. Then listen to recordings like Arturo Sandoval Y El Tren Latino, I Remember Clifford, and Dear Diz (Every Day I Think of You) to truly experience this musical force of nature.
Former members of the Cuban jazz band Irakere, Sandoval and ex-bandmates Paquito D’Rivera and Chucho Valdés are perhaps the most talented musicians Cuba has created in the last 50 years. Since coming to the United States, both D’Rivera (1980) and Sandoval (1990) have continued their careers worldwide.
Like Nicholas Payton has done more recently, some years back Sandoval took on the daunting and ambitious task of touring and recording as a pianist, as if his master work in classical and jazz on trumpet and flugelhorn weren’t enough. His beloved piano is an Imperial model Bösendorfer that was originally custom-made for the legendary Oscar Peterson. It is nine-and-a-half feet long and has 10 extra keys.
Less known to his jazz fans is Sandoval’s love of cigars, and for smoking several (as in 4 to 5) every day. The trumpeter has long been associated with the famous cigar manufacturer family of Arturo Fuente; Sandoval’s friendship with the Fuentes has led to a cigar/CD package, and presumably a lifetime supply of Chateau Fuente Churchills.
Merely talking about his musical loves excites Sandoval—in an instant, he rushes to the piano at his Los Angeles home to play one of his compositions, a danzón, a more formal and difficult Cuban style. After talking about trumpet players, he zips open his case and plays a dead ringer for Harry James, one of his favorites. He follows it with playing in the softer style of Chet Baker, to illustrate another point. In many ways, all of Sandoval’s recordings and concerts are moments of teaching: showing how Cuban son can be married to the jazz idiom; how a classical concerto can be reimagined through a blues progression; and the correct way a blazing trumpet solo should be done over full mambo orchestration. Many other players are capable of “teaching” lessons about what they know and what they’ve found, but few are such powerful masters of illustrating, and fewer still have the depth of experience and musical prowess of a Sandoval.
This interview focuses on how he was formed as a musician, and what catches his ear and imagination.
You went through a lot as a young musician, probably more than most.
I had to be a fighter, a guy who really perseveres, has discipline. I really believe that when you are in love with what you do, no matter what happens you are going to keep trying. I always kept in my mind that this was what I wanted to do. Music is so beautiful. It made my soul, my spirit feel so good.
While in Cuba, you were only able to hear jazz on shortwave radio. There is the famous story of you being put in an Army jail for listening to jazz.
I had only one way to listen to jazz then: through “Willie’s Carnival Jazz Hour” with Willis Conover on the Voice of America. Unfortunately, in the barracks my sergeant heard someone speaking in English on the show [Sandoval spent nearly four months in the Army jail in 1971 because of this].
How much did blues influence you as a young musician?
Not only as a young player, and even until now—blues is extremely important to any jazz musician. It’s mandatory as part of the ABCs of the style.
Who are your favorite composers, throughout history?
I love Sergei Rachmaninoff, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy, and of course Dizzy Gillespie.
What compositions have absolutely the most power to attract your interest?
The Rachmaninoff Piano Concertos, second and third.
You’ve explored so much of the Afro-Cuban side of the aisle, and nearly as much in classical pieces, as well as the piano. What would you still like to do that you haven’t yet?
I’m very happy doing what I’ve been doing, I only ask God to give me health and the desire to keep playing.
What did it feel like to play with Dizzy Gillespie when you first toured with him?
I always said that for me it was a gift from God to meet him and become a close friend with my hero and mentor.
What a great guy. I miss him every day, man. He was happy, and he loved music. He enjoyed every minute of his life, people, talking about this and that. He never was in too much of a hurry to go to the piano, play some chords, explain. At more than 70 years of age, he was hungry to learn. That’s what really influenced me more than anything else: his love and passion for music.
John Coltrane was fascinated by bagpipes. Is there another instrument or genre that is calling to you now?
I discovered a musician from Romania who plays the cimbalom [Marius Preda], and he has been my guest on a number of concerts already. I’m fascinated by the instrument and also by his playing.
You are famous for playing solos hard, in the upper register.
To me a note is a note, no matter how high or low. How much passion and intensity you play the note. When you see a piano in front of you with 88 notes, which are more important—the ones on the left or the ones on the right? With the trumpet it’s the same thing. Sometimes people just pay attention to the high notes, but what about the low notes? The middle? I try to explore the whole instrument. As many notes as you can play, the less limitation you’ll have in your improvisation.
That’s why I love piano. You got all kinds of notes. What counts in the end is how you put them together.
You are also known for disliking the expressions “Latin jazz” and “salsa.”
When Chano Pozo, Mario Bauzá and Dizzy Gillespie started to play their music, that mixture was called Afro-Cuban jazz. My question is: Who changed the name of that style, and with whose permission? Those people own that style, to mix bebop with Cuban rhythm. That’s it. And musicians from Mexico, South America, they don’t have anything to do with it.
Keep calling a cha cha cha a cha cha cha. I don’t want to hear a mambo called a salsa; that pisses me off. Mambo is mambo. All those Cuban rhythms are authentic. They have creators, their own patterns. Those people [the players] should have our respect. When a disc jockey plays samba, he doesn’t know the difference between that and cumbia. So when somebody asks what it is, he just says “salsa.” They put everything in one sack.
How did you approach writing the score for your own life story, For Love or Country?
It was two different parts, the first one was a number of tunes that we recorded before they started shooting and later the second part was to write the underscore based on the images and the drama. It was such an exhilarating experience and I hope to be able to compose many more underscores in the future, as it is something I thoroughly enjoy.
What are your latest projects?
Currently I have a wonderful album that came out last year entitled Live at Yoshi’s. It was recorded at the great Yoshi’s Jazz Club in Oakland, and with one of the best bands I’ve ever had. And thankfully I tour with this band year-round.
I am also extremely excited about my upcoming Duets album. I have some of the most wonderful artists joining me, and I’m so thankful for their participation. We are in the studio now and will hopefully be releasing it sometime in the late summer of 2016. Some of the exceptional musicians joining me are Josh Groban, Placido Domingo, Pharrell Williams, Alejandro Sanz, Juan Luis Guerra, Al Jarreau, along with some more huge surprises. We are selecting some of their own hits and rearranging the tunes for a voice/trumpet duet—the songs are turning out really amazing!